How-tos | HOME TRUTHS

There's no hiding in Japan's toilets

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

When it comes to toilets, Japan presents several paradoxes. On the one hand, public toilets are ubiquitous, easy to access and, for the most part, quite clean. On the other hand, they can also be primitive, or at least to a Western sensibility.

Though there don’t seem to be any statistics available, in our experience, most public toilets that aren’t located in office buildings or retail outlets tend to be the squat type, which may present problems when all those visitors descend on Tokyo for the Olympics in 2020. Two years ago, shortly after it was announced that the capital would host the games, Chiba Prefecture set aside a supplemental budget that would subsidize the replacement of squat-type toilets in public rest rooms with commode style units.

Another paradox is the status of toilets in the home. Japan is rightly famous for giving the world the most sophisticated toilet bowls ever imagined, which are so high-tech that they do everything but pull up your pants after you’re finished. However, within the house itself toilet facilities are often poorly designed and placed. This flaw can be blamed partly on the paucity of space and partly on certain entrenched design parameters — but mainly it has to do with a lack of imagination.

Several years ago, when we were looking at used houses with a notion to buy, we asked realtors why toilets were often placed close to the genkan (foyer). One knowledgeable agent said that in most cases toilets had low priority in the layouts for mass-produced single-family homes, and so in the end the genkan was the last place available for a toilet. This opinion was partially verified by a housing blog we recently found that said the best way to judge the quality of an architect for residences was to look at his or her placement of toilets. If the toilet was directly adjacent to the living-dining-kitchen area, it showed bad judgment, since that area receives the most traffic from both occupants and guests and the toilet should afford its users maximum privacy.

One reason why the toilet is often positioned in the hallway near the genkan is because this was generally where it was placed in traditional Japanese houses. In such abodes, you entered the home into a space that opened on to a rōka (hallway) separating the rooms of the house from sliding doors that looked out onto the garden. The toilet was normally placed at the end of the rōka opposite the genkan, far enough away from the entrance so that it wasn’t noticeable. Because the genkan is the interface between the occupants of the house and the outside world, and a lot of social interaction took place there, the distance of the rōka was important, but in newer houses that distance is far less, because there is no rōka. In fact, the toilet is sometimes the first thing visitors notice when they enter the house.

Unlike most Western homes, where the toilet tends to be installed within a common “bathroom,” which contains a sink and bathing facilities, in Japan the toilet is isolated in its own space. This means that when someone emerges from it, everyone within vision or earshot knows exactly what that person had just been doing, which can be embarrassing for both the user and the observer.

The main reason toilets are not incorporated into the bathroom, however, is that the Japanese bathroom, which normally comprises an enclosed bathing area and a senmenjo — a chamber with a sink, a changing area and sometimes laundry facilities — is not very private. The toilet room will, however, likely be placed next to the bathroom because designers try to keep all water functions in close proximity to each other so as to minimize plumbing, which can add considerably to the cost of a house.

These matters became even more problematic in the 1980s, when new houseowners demanded more than one toilet in the home. In accordance with the plumbing dictum, designers tried to place the second floor toilet directly above the one on the first floor to minimize the amount of pipes.

In condominiums and apartments, toilets are even more of an afterthought. Plumbing is not as much of a concern because collective housing has pipes all over the place and toilets can be positioned anywhere. But developers sacrifice certain comforts (sunlight, ease of movement, sound-proofing) for the sake of saving money and maximizing profits with as many units as possible within a given piece of real estate. Toilets end up where there just happens to be space for them.

Also, since most condos, and quite a few single-family homes, for that matter, use a modular style of design for the convenience of the builder, condo toilets tend to be uniform: 90 centimeters wide and about 1.3 meters deep. Given that the average toilet is 70 cm wide and 80 to 85 cm deep, the compartment can be very claustrophobic. In such a space, there is no room for a separate sink, which explains why many toilet manufacturers incorporate a small one on the top of the tank. Now, of course, the trend is for sleek, tankless toilets, but their footprint isn’t necessarily smaller than a conventional toilet. The sophistication of the equipment means little if you barely have enough space to do your business.

If you’re building a house or remodeling an old one, pay sufficient attention to the toilet situation, because if you let the designer have his way you may regret it later. If possible, ask to have it positioned in a space that provides maximum privacy, and make it as spacious as possible.

Make sure there is at least one per floor. And if you are getting on in years, be sure it is barrier-free and install a sliding door rather than the standard hinged door entrance. You don’t necessarily spend a lot of time in the toilet, but in terms of avoiding stress there are few places in the home that are as vital to one’s peace of mind. They don’t call it a rest room for nothing.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.