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Japanese-style toilets can be challenge for visitors


The night before my husband Tom’s mother, sister, and cousin flew out to visit us in Japan, we Skyped one last time to go over how we’d meet up at the airport, to ease his mother’s fears about getting lost. They seemed set, save for just one more thing.

No, not North Korea’s threats. Or rumors of remaining radiation or the earthquakes (though a mini-tremor is happening as I write this…or it could be the intense wind shaking our third floor). Nope, not even chopsticks — they’d been practicing.

Then what?

The toilets. What would the toilets be like? They asked, eyes wide.

Tom and I laughed. But I could understand. I still remember my surprise the first time I saw a hole surrounded with porcelain foot pads in Cinque Terre on our honeymoon. I probably bounced like a kindergartner, squeezing my legs together before walking up to the hole, thinking, then walking away, still scarred by a squatting incident in junior high involving a one-piece snowsuit, borrowed from a friend. Tom didn’t understand my stubborn refusal that time, or the next, when waiting for the train after dinner; I pranced in place and held it, until tears threatened. Then Tom said he’d help me. So, my newlywed walked me into the single stall and stood opposite me so I could hold onto his legs while I tried to squat (after precautionarily taking my pants off, of course). A dangerous act, my aim even worse while shaking with laughter. A chivalric gesture that only made me love him more.

Public restrooms in Japan, like the meticulous country’s city streets, are remarkably clean, I assured our soon-to-be-guests, easing their pre-flight minds. I waited until they arrived to warn them about the various possibilities. You just never know what your “exit option” will be. I’ve walked into small, mom & pop restaurants, expecting to find the Eastern hole in the ground, then hesitantly opened the door to find a fancy Toto toilet, complete with a self-warming seat and bidet (with both temperature and water pressure controls).

Most public toilets at train stations and parks are Eastern-style, oblong porcelain bowls in the ground, but one Western-style sit-down toilet can usually be found in the very last stall or two, if you’re lucky. There were a few times our guests held out a bit longer to guarantee that seat.

What made Tom and I laugh is that our toilets back home seem archaic in comparison to the Toto wonders here. “You mean the seats aren’t heated?” my Japanese friend once asked, aghast. No bidet? Just paper? Dare I admit that without a good wash, I too now feel unclean?

Not to mention the courtesies, like handy seats for your infant and disguising noisemakers.

Once I asked two Japanese ladies I went hiking with (both grandmothers, who impressively hoofed up the trails like mountain goats) whether they preferred Eastern or Western-style toilets, now that they’ve been exposed to both. They looked at each other, then at the public bathroom nearby, whose toilets were Eastern-style but surprisingly clean, being that we were surrounded by lush green forest, in the mountains above Kamakura’s myriad shrines and temples. Definitely better than any outhouse or port-a-potty you’d find way up here, back in the States.

At home the ladies preferred the Toto, to sit and relax. Much easier, they agreed. But for public situations? They grimaced – why would you want to sit where someone else’s bare bottom had been? They shuddered at such a thought.

Thereafter, I stopped holding it and waiting for the Western toilet. Instead, I approach the public restroom door and use whatever is revealed. More often than not, the fancy toilet appears. Some even greet me, the motion-sensor lid opening on its own – welcome, Bre! – as if it’s been waiting all day just for me to arrive.

Now I can squat anywhere anytime, a skill that has come in handy quite often (unfortunately), especially during long runs. Not to mention, my new skill earned me major points with Tom. What can I say? He likes classy girls.

As for our guests, by the end of their visit, two of the three attempted the squat, and like me, they agreed – there’s something easier about it. If you’re going to squat anyway, that dirty seat just gets in the way.

The only issues that remain are the lack of hand soap and the unstandardized means for flushing. After being conditioned by motion sensors, your heart stops for a moment when you stand up and don’t hear that automatic flush. Then your mind begins to race, as you search the floor, where you may find a metal button to step on. If not, then maybe on the wall, where surrounded by kanji figures you may finally see a hand above a metal, indented square. So you wave your hand in front of it, then push it, then wave your hand again. And when all else fails, you tip the lid a little toward you to see that the flusher is exactly where it always is back home. Or, you stare at the written directions long enough to understand them and feel like you’re finally learning Japanese, until you realize they’re subtitled in English.

Or, you do as my mother-in-law did and press that button near the bidet options on the wall, labeled in bright red. She never did get that toilet to flush, but she sure did get the medic to come check on her twice.

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I'd posit that natives ain't to fond of them either. Whenever I'm in a crowded place that has a public restroom with western and j-toilets, the western toilets are ALWAYS filled first.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

They are my greatest fear in Japan... even more than earthquakes. I fell into one of these first time I tried to use it... now when I'm in Japan I only go where I know there are western loos. The trough-style lavvies just give me the willies.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

And, by the way, the eastern ones aren't all that clean sometimes.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Misleading headline. They aren't "Japanese-style toilets" - unless you've never been anywhere else in the world.. They're squat toilets and are used in quite a few countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. I've used them in France, China, Turkey and even in some places in the U.S. and I never heard anyone in those places call them "Japanese-style toilets". They're simply one of the most basic types of toilet.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

There's nothing to hold onto! You need the knees of a weight-lifter to hold your body in that position.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Yes, but to own a Toto in the U.S. is a mistake. I have one, and it is not hygenic. There is an inner seam on the toiet seat which can never be really cleaned.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

“You mean the seats aren’t heated?” my Japanese friend once asked, aghast. No bidet? Just paper?

And the conversation continued as follows:

What, you mean you don't have a music option? And the toilet lid doesn't open automatically when you open the door? What the heck, the toilet papers don't have any fragrance?...

No, no and no. However, our toilet papers are two-ply so as to avoid accidents.

They aren't "Japanese-style toilets" - unless you've never been anywhere else in the world.. They're squat toilets and are used in quite a few countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. I've used them in France, China, Turkey and even in some places in the U.S. and I never heard anyone in those places call them "Japanese-style toilets".

And I've never heard "western" style toilets being called American-style toilets either.

Public restrooms in Japan, like the meticulous country’s city streets, are remarkably clean

Try the bogs in JR. Hideous! And really, people should wash their hands after doing number two, at the very least.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

The best recommendation is not to use public toilets, either Asian or westerns in any place around the world. So hold it as much as you can.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

The toilets- naysayers be durned, I love em. There is nothing like that position for a good-feeling and fully complete evacuation. Flexiblize yer knees, and you will love them too! If I ever were rich enough to build mine own house, I would include a squat toilet in the design!

The "bouncing like a kindergartner" expression- sorry, I just didn't get that.

The part about her hubby coming in and facing her so she could hold his knees whilst squatting- Is that all that was about? And while utilizing the loo at the same time? I am not sure I needed to know about that!

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Public trough style toilets are some of the most filthy foul places one can end up in Japan, best avoided if at all possible!

Not all are like that but if its PUBLIC use its highly likely to be nasty

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

It's true many JR and metro toilets have not soap! How can someone say its clean when can't wash hands after a poo? So dirty!

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

Women in general should have an easier time with the eastern toilets as they at some point in their lives have needed to answer the call in the wild or somewhere other than a western toilet. Unless you're the Queen or a princess in training, I doubt you've made it through half your life without squatting once if not more. Guys, on the other hand only need to squat for a #2 and since paper, a hand full of snow or leaves would be required, waiting is almost always the option. Just saying, the ladies have an advantage over men on this 'skill set'.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I had my "eastern potty training" at the remote airfield that passes for Venice Airport for the budget airlines. Got off the plane and had not even considered that they might have squat loos in Italy. If I'd known, I'd have gone for my sit down on the facility on the plane before landing, but I thought I'd wait for the less cramped confines of an airport convenience.

Still, it proved good training for Japan. To my relief (pun intended), in my several visits to Japan, even staying in very old ryokan, I've only ever had to resort to a squat on one occasion - at a JR station when 'caught short'.

Lack of paper in some Japanese public loos is, at first sight, a problem, but my wife clued me in - That's what the free hand outs of packets of tissues with advertising on them all over Japan are for. Keep one with you at all times and gratefully accept any dished out at railway ticket halls! Some station loos don't provide paper but (enterprising, as ever) there's a vending machine for tissues outside, in case you've exhausted your free supply.

Lack of soap is endemic across the world. Many places that purport to have soap (liquid types in dispensers) are frequently not filled and bars of soap are to be avoided like the plague. Small dispensers of alcohol hand disinfectant or 'wet wipes' are my wife's hand bag answer.

She even has a 'travel size' tiny bottle of toilet freshener for our holidays! A single drop of the miracle liquid, dropped into the loo after a flush, eliminates incriminating odours. She doesn't want to offend the senses of even the hotel cleaners.

Not sure if that's typical behaviour for Japanese women, as I've only been married to the one, but the fact that the product exists in Japan means others must buy it... It's not available in the UK, saying something about British sensibilities, so she stocks up when we go home.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

sabineko: She even has a 'travel size' tiny bottle of toilet freshener for our holidays! A single drop of the miracle liquid, dropped into the loo after a flush, eliminates incriminating odours. She doesn't want to offend the senses of even the hotel cleaners.

I'm with your wife on the accepting of tissue paper handed out on the street and the wet wipes in lieu of bars of soap but sorry, putting toilet freshener in the toilet is going too far. Not only is it borderline neurotic - like way too many ladies already are when it comes to using public toilets with all of the stupid masking sounds like others are clueless to or care about what you're doing in there anyway -- but I have a hard time believing that it's good to be putting yet more chemicals into the water or that it does any good. It's highly unlikely cleaners are going to be in the loo at the very moment your wife has had a particularly odiferous sitting and if they are, they'll probably be wearing masks anyway. I've worked as a hotel cleaner and don't remember even once walking into a loo while odors were still lingering. It's just over the top and unnecessary to be using "toilet fresheners".

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Bah, third world holes in the ground. Dunno why they cling to them.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Its kind of funny how Japan went from squat toilets everywhere, to sitting toilets with heated seat, squirt nozzle, etc in so many places. Its quite the game of one upmanship and one wonders what is next?

But truth be told, the squat toilets are better for you. And I am not talking about the knee exercise. Your body is actually designed to defecate in that position, and not doing so gives many people hemorrhoids. I am completely serious. You can look that up.

And a minor point, but if you are ever lost or stranded in the wilderness, people used to squat toilets are not going to have an easier time.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

dejavu, we had this discussion last year.............here a cut and paste of my response then. nothing has changed!

Sadly modern ignorance is rife. Squatting is the the best way for you health, its the way we evolved to go over millions of years. sitting to go is a mere blip in the human timeline and its causes a host of problems - 'piles' for starters anyone? Humans are so far removed from nature now, most of us don't know how to go naturally, what a truly sad indictment of our species.

Seven Advantages of Squatting (from this linked site)


Makes elimination faster, easier and more complete. This helps prevent "fecal stagnation," a prime factor in colon cancer, appendicitis and inflammatory bowel disease.

2.Protects the nerves that control the prostate, bladder and uterus from becoming stretched and damaged.

3.Securely seals the ileocecal valve, between the colon and the small intestine. In the conventional sitting position, this valve is unsupported and often leaks during evacuation, contaminating the small intestine.

4.Relaxes the puborectalis muscle which normally chokes the rectum in order to maintain continence.

5.Uses the thighs to support the colon and prevent straining. Chronic straining on the toilet can cause hernias, diverticulosis, and pelvic organ prolapse.

6.A highly effective, non-invasive treatment for hemorrhoids, as shown by published clinical research.

7.For pregnant women, squatting avoids pressure on the uterus when using the toilet. Daily squatting helps prepare one for a more natural delivery.

someone asked: "how in the heck do you arrange the pants so that nothing goes haywire ... ?? "

before I came to japan I was told to remove one leg from your trousers, move the whole lot to one side and then squat. Slip on shoes makes this a lot easier, I can do it in a few seconds. If you have any balance and flexibilty, (sadly I have met many, inflexible, out of shape and overweight foreigners in my time in Japan - the very ones who hate squatting...) it should be easy to perform. People with knee issues and genuine orthopedic issues etc I can fully understand the dislike of the squatter however.

My school has modern CLEAN squat toilets in addition to sit down toilets, I always go for the the squat toilets. I care about my health - all aspects: nutrition, exercise sleep and this - minimize your risk of troubles later on down the line -squat - you'll build normal leg strength too.

Train stations can be nasty, (i wish station staff pride in their job/station extended to the bathroom) but at least no body parts are in contact with the seat, no dreaded "porcelain kiss" for the man parts either which Japan is shocking for - horribly un-ergonomically shallow shaped bowls - far too little "swing space" for blokes.

Though I do like washlets - the only positive benefit from sitting to go.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I always have fears when travelling to Japan, China and Taiwan and have to use the squat toilet in an emergency. The floor is frequently wet with water/urine and if I take off my pants, there is always the possibility of soaking the trousers and also when squatting, wallet and other objects will fall out and go directly into the toilet. I have seen several times cell phones falling squarely into the pop and the owners just leave them there. So far, I try to do my business in the hotels before go out and eat a lot of vegetables and fruits. MY luck may run out one of these days and I cannot squat well.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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