BlogTV Japan: The Social Life of Public Toilets

BlogTV is back on the air after a lengthy hiatus, while I upgraded the video delivery system. I am pleased to bring to you another strange video from FujiTV News in Japan (8min 50sec in Japanese with Japanese subtitles only) that explores the enigma of Japanese toilets.

Perhaps nothing in Japan inspires more curiousity than toilets. Everyone knows that Japanese toilets are somehow different, but there are a few misconceptions about the subject. Many people have the strange idea that Japan is a land of high-tech toilets, but that is a misconception. According to Japanese census data, it was only within the last decade that over 50% of all toilets were Western-style toilets. Until very recently, Japanese toilets were predominantly the Japanese-style squat toilets, which are not much more than a trench in the ground. Census data still shows that as many as 35% of all toilets in Japan are not hooked up to sanitary sewers, they are merely hooked up to holding tanks that must be emptied by a “honey wagon,” a tanker truck that comes around periodically to siphon off the sewage. Much to the chagrin of hapless foreigners, it is quite common to find oneself in a position where no familiar Western toilet is available, only a squat toilet. However, for the Japanese, it is also possible for someone who has never used anything but a squat toilet to find only Western toilets and not know how to use them. Even when both styles of toilets are available, many people prefer the Japanese style, since that is what they used since they were a child.

And this is where our video begins. A classroom full of kindergartners is assembled on their first day of school for an important lesson: how to use the school’s new Western toilets. Some of these children grew up in traditional homes and have never seen such a thing. The teacher explains to the giggling children how to use the new toilets, and takes the children on a tour of the newly remodeled facilities. The children love the new toilets, declaring them beautiful, and in fact, they are practically palaces of porcelain compared to typical school toilets. One student says the old toilets were stinky and he never liked to use them.

And here is the crux of our video. We switch scenes and enter the Ministry of Science and Education, where a spokesman declares that the poor quality of toilets in schools is becoming an obstacle to the education and socialization of children. Japan must not allow itself to fall behind in public toilet facilities, so the Ministry is announcing an expensive new program to upgrade toilets in all schools throughout Japan.

Let us tour some of these new facilities, starting with an elementary school in Kanazawa prefecture in north central Japan. The cameraman lingers on a crude copy of Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker,” but his squatting merely foreshadows the sights we will view inside the school. We approach the newly upgraded facilities, painted a bright blue, and the announcer directs our attention to the distinctive “tokonoma,” a typically Japanese architectural feature of an inset shelf where an artistic display can be set, in this case a vase of flowers. But perhaps the announcer is attempting to divert our attention from one strange feature, a large mirror on the boys’ bathroom that allows us to see all the way into the room. There is no such mirror on the girls’ side. Inside the room, we see the ceiling mural of blue sky and white clouds, to evoke a peaceful, restful setting. A group of girls assembles and one says, “It doesn’t seem like a school bathroom!”

Let’s visit another school in Gunma Prefecture. This school has a different color scheme, but the design is even more modern. A high-tech washlet is available, as well as self-flushing urinals. But not all toilets in the school have been modernized. We see another bathroom that is more typical of the old style, with rusting steel sinks and grungy tile walls and floors. Students again express their disgust for the decaying old bathrooms.

But the Ministry of Science and Education’s toilet initiative is not designed just for convenience, it must enhance social interaction. So the new toilets are designed with benches out front, where the students can lounge around between classes. We watch through a telephoto lens from a far distance, and we see a gaggle of girls headed to the head together. They don’t enter to use the toilets, they sit out front and chat with each other. Even the teachers get into the act, chatting with small groups of boys and girls. The bathrooms have become a center of social activity within the school.

The toilets even have a unique educational component. We watch as a group of students learn how to help the disabled use the “barrier-free” bathroom. The students take turns roleplaying, learning to lift each other on and off the toilet. Perhaps some good will come from these able-bodied students learning how difficult it can be for the disabled to perform some of the most basic bodily functions, they may learn to empathize with others who are less fortunate than themselves.

Let us now travel off to another school in Mie Prefecture. This school’s bathrooms have not yet been upgraded, so we will be able to observe this most typically Japanese process of planning a public project. First, an initial site survey is performed by members of an iinkai, a committee delegated to investigate the issue. A teacher watches as the students point out their problems with the facilities. They complain about privacy, badly placed mirrors allow unobstructed views into the urinal area, the doors on the stalls do not go all the way to the ceiling so people can hop up and look over the doors. But this is merely the first step in the planning process. The full membership of the iinkai meets to prioritize the changes they would like to make.

Let’s leave the Gunma school’s preliminary iinkai and visit another school in Shiga Prefecture, to see how their upgrade process went. Eight years have gone into this plan, and with such elaborate preparations, every detail has been examined, this school’s bathrooms are the very model of a modern major upgrade. But a bathroom is mere tile and porcelain, the school principal declares that the biggest changes have come in how students think about bathrooms. And now we see the reason why, an iinkai conducted a survey of all students, to examine how they felt about the old bathrooms and what an ideal bathroom would look like. The remodeling reflects the students’ wishes, so students now feel like the bathrooms were created just for them. And in any public school, the bathrooms’ maintenance and cleaning is the responsibility of the students, so if the students don’t care about their toilets, they will not be responsible citizens and take proper measures to insure their cleanliness. We see how the students fastidiously clean the facilities, even leaving signs taped to the wall to admonish everyone to keep the place neat and tidy. Anyone who would dare to defile these porcelain halls would be wagamama, a selfish person who does not obey the social norms that are expected of every citizen. A teenage girl says it is the responsibility of the senior students to teach their juniors the proper attitudes towards the toilets, and the school’s principal proudly declares that the students will always treasure their memories of their time spent in the school’s toilets.

And as we close, the announcer repeats the central lesson of the Ministry of Science and Education’s toilet initiative. A change in the toilets also changes the attitudes of the students that use them. A remodeling of the facilities has given the students new opportunities for socialization, both through the iinkai process of development, and through the new social space created in accordance with everyone’s desires.

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