5 Kind-Of-Strange Things About Going To The Bathroom In Japan

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
This post was originally published on March 27, 2015.

It may not have been the Japanese who came up with the saying “cleanliness is next to godliness,” but the Land of the Rising Sun certainly has its share of neat-freakiness. After all, the word for “pretty” in Japanese, kirei, also means clean. This cultural obsession with keeping things tidy has resulted in the development of some uniquely Japanese habits regarding one of the more delicate aspects of daily life: the bathroom. For anyone planning a trip to Tokyo who doesn’t want to be caught with their pants down when nature calls (or anyone just looking for a little bathroom reading), here are some essentials for potty talk. Ahead, five things you need to know when you gotta go…in Japan.

1. Japanese bathrooms come with their own footwear.
Remember that one friend you had growing up — the one whose mom would always nag you to take your shoes off at the door when you went over to their house? Welcome to Japan. The nationwide no-shoes rule extends to offices, schools, fitting rooms, and even drinking establishments. This came about not because of some kind of widespread foot fetish, but because in Japan it’s traditional to sit on the tatami floor — and no one wants to lounge around on all that crap stuck to the bottom of your shoes (not that anyone litters or lets their dog poop on the sidewalk in Japan).

Private homes and public spaces alike usually have a row of comfy, inside-only slippers awaiting guests near the door. But, the shoe swap doesn’t stop there — when you visit the bathroom, you’ll find yet another pair of slippers to change into. And, lest you confuse them for the others, these will probably be decorated with a smiling cartoon character and the word toilet. Like the old "skirt tucked into the underwear" or "toilet paper on the shoe" gags, it’s a classic Japanese faux pas to accidentally walk out of the bathroom with the toilet slippers still on.
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2. Japan has toilets and bathrooms — and never the twain shall meet.
There’s a lot about Japanese culture that baffles outsiders, but when it comes to the loo, the culture shock goes both ways. Surprisingly, the thing that Japanese people find most outrageous about American homes isn’t the way we walk around on carpet with our shoes on like it's no thing — it’s the fact that we whiz and wash in the same room.

That’s because in Japan, the toilet (the pinnacle of dirtiness) and the tub (the beacon of cleanliness) are almost always detached from one another, with the toilet contained in a small water closet and the shower and bath next door. Japanese people wonder why, with all that space in our McMansions, Americans choose to combine the two — a fact that many find as disgusting as it is puzzling. The concept is so foreign, in fact, that guides for Japanese exchange students living in American homestays provide a warning about the morning bathroom rush hour: When your host sister wants to take a leisurely shower, you’re just gonna have to hold it. So, while Japanese people say that they feel “exposed” in cavernous American bathrooms, claustrophobic Americans will want to watch out for Japan’s coffin-like W.C.s.

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
3. Japan loves its Washlets.
Americans travelers to Italy and France are often dumbfounded by the presence of a second toilet-like object in the bathroom: the bidet. For some reason, we’re squeamish about having our bums splashed with water, but much of the world can’t live without that soothing spray — and the hygiene-conscious Japanese have taken fanny fountains to new heights.

In the 1980s, the geniuses at Japanese toilet company Toto created an all-in-one electronic model that combined the bowl and bidet for space-starved Tokyo apartments, an invention now known affectionately (because Japanese people really do love them) by the brand name Washlet. As of 2012, 72% of Japanese households are the proud owners of one of these high-tech thrones. They’re fit with a self-cleaning nozzle that squirts a cleansing jet of warm water, which can be adjusted to aim right at the target. The strength of the stream is also customizable to suit the job, just one of the many features that go beyond flushing: Connoisseurs of the hands-free lavatory experience can add on motion-sensitive lids that lift and lower by themselves, deodorizing capabilities to make it seem like you were never there, and even a blowdry function. If you’re dying to try one of these next-generation johns without a transpacific flight, just drop by the ladies room at Google HQ — they’ve upgraded all of their stalls with Japan’s most useful invention since instant ramen.

4. But, Japan also loves its squat toilets.
Even if you’re not greeted by a singing, dancing robot toilet when you enter a Japanese bathroom, chances are you’ll still be confused by what you find — because if it’s not a space-age honey bucket, it’s basically a hole in the ground. “Japanese-style” squat toilets (called washikis) are still widespread outside of big cities, and most public bathrooms will have a selection of both.

Like a urinal built horizontally into the floor, these “squatty potties” are meant to be mounted in the opposite direction than you would place a Western-style toilet (i.e., facing the plumbing) — a source of confusion for foreigners that often requires hilarious informative diagrams. The younger Japanese generation is flush with reasons to dislike washikis: Aiming for the basin in an unsteady squatting position can sometimes get messy (which may explain the need for bathroom slippers), plus there’s the unpleasant experience of coming face-to-face with your waste.

Traditionalists, however, say that the squat is the most natural and ergonomic way to take care of business, and that washiki use has the added bonus of strengthening leg, hip, and pelvic muscles. With Japan’s famously aging population, though, there are increasing reports of old folks getting down to, well, get down — but having to call for help because they can’t get back up.

5. Japanese women don’t have bathroom gossip sessions.
We’ve all seen it at parties: four girls tumbling out of the bathroom like it’s a clown car. Whether they’re hiding out in the restroom for a girls-only gossip session or taking group selfies in the mirror, it's a truth that when American women need to go to the ladies room, they love to take an entourage. And, why not — how many important conversations have taken place through the stall walls?

But, the lavatory-summit phenomenon does not exist in Japan, and the proof is in a critical washlet feature not mentioned above — the function that plays a jingle while you tinkle. Though some say that the music is supposed to help relax you for a smooth move, the main purpose of the sonorous capabilities of Japan’s high-tech toilets is to mask the more natural noises associated with relieving oneself. Whether motivated by shyness surrounding bodily emissions or consideration for the delicate ears of fellow bathroom users, Japanese attempts to drown out the toots of noblemen date back to the Edo period, when a water feature called an “urn for covering the sound” was used in five-star inns.

Self-conscious, modern women may repeatedly flush the toilet to drown out their noises, but innovative and eco-friendly Japan has come up with a solution to all that wasted water. Fancy Washlets can now produce classical or jazz music to distract potential listeners-on, while bathrooms that haven’t yet upgraded to the Toilet 2.0 often install a special device just for this purpose: Launched in 1988, it’s called an “Otohime” (which literally means “sound princess” but is also the name of a legendary Japanese goddess who could shape-shift into a sea monster).

Mounted next to the toilet, the motion-sensitive gadget plays startlingly forceful recordings of running water and fake flushing sounds. Guess the inventors weren’t concerned that the Otohime runs the risk of giving the untrained listener the impression that Japanese women pee like racehorses.

Using the loo in Japan may involve a few surprises, but there's one thing you can count on: Ninety-five percent of the time, that toilet is going to be sparkling clean. With the Japanese attention to detail, even the public bathrooms in notoriously icky places like highway rest stops and convenience stores are almost always well stocked, spotless, and freshly scented. So, even though the powder-room customs may be different, there's no reason to fear the unknown — getting used to going to the bathroom the Japanese way just takes a little training.
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