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A gut feeling that you need an extra toilet

by and

Everybody knows that Japan produces the most technologically advanced toilets in the world. They pretty much do everything except pull up your pants when you’re finished. And one of the more pleasant surprises greeting foreign visitors to Japan is the ubiquity and accessibility of public toilets.

But there’s one toilet-related matter where Japan is still lacking. When we were looking to buy an apartment in the Tokyo Metropolitan area some years ago, one of our conditions was that the unit have two toilets. We quickly learned that the vast majority of condominiums in Japan only contain one toilet. The exceptions are new luxury condos of more than 100 square meters or so.

Initially, we accepted this truth—after all, most apartments in the U.S. only have one toilet, too. Then, later, when we started looking at previously owned single-family houses, we realized that most also only had one toilet, even when they were two-story homes. Eventually, we gave up looking for older properties and had a house built according to our own design, making sure there were two toilets — one off the bedroom and another in the actual bathroom.

In our case, it’s just the two of us, so having two toilets is more a matter of convenience as we get older, but we were puzzled that so many apartments and houses ostensibly built for families would only have one toilet. A search on the internet revealed that we weren’t alone in our puzzlement. An essay on the housing company website, Momo no Iro, written by a woman, described how she and her husband came to regret buying their condo when their daughter entered elementary school.

“There are always merits and demerits to any property you purchase,” she wrote. “And as the years went by one demerit became more intolerable.” That demerit was having only one toilet, a situation that results in tense standoffs in the morning when everyone in the family is getting ready for their days at school or work. The woman now wishes she had bought a house instead. “I’ve never seen a condominium with two toilets,” she wrote.

According to our own online survey of properties for sale, two toilets didn’t really start becoming common in single-family houses until the 1990s, and even then it’s more of a trend than a standard feature. And you only find them in two-story houses, almost never in single-story houses, though occasionally older single-story houses might have one toilet and one urinal.

There are several reasons why housing developers resisted two-toilet designs, even though there was a demand. For one thing, Western-style flush toilets didn’t become the norm in homes until the ’70s. In fact, until the ’80s it was a sign of status to have a throne-style toilet in your home. Japanese squat toilets, which normally didn’t have a full flush function, depended on gravity in order to eliminate the wastes they receive, and having one on the second floor is problematic in terms of keeping the plumbing clear all the way to the waste tank.

Another reason is that developers and housing manufacturers, in order to keep prices down, try to concentrate all the plumbing in one area to reduce pipe lengths. If there are two toilets in a two-story house, they will likely be positioned one on top of the other so that they can use the same pipes, and on the north side of the building, where the bath tub and probably the kitchen are close by. Space is always at a premium in Japanese housing, and having toilets with separate plumbing systems takes up room that otherwise could be used for storage. In Japanese homes, toilets are also typically given their own closed-off compartment, rather than be incorporated into a washroom, a circumstance that automatically uses more space.

Our research also revealed that many people who own condominiums are looking for ways to install a second toilet in their units. Apparently, it’s quite difficult.

First of all, you need to get permission from building management and owners associations, since only the horizontal plumbing in a building is owned separately by individuals. Vertical plumbing is communal property, and any new toilet will have to be connected to vertical pipes. Another difficulty is the space beneath the floorboards, which must be sufficient enough to house new pipes with a slight diagonal drop. In the case of older condos where the space under the floors is narrow, the floor might have to be raised to accommodate the plumbing.In addition, waterproofing work needs to be carried out, and some condominiums have strict rules regarding materials.

Consequently, installing a second toilet in a house tends to be cheaper than installing one in a condo. The cost depends on the amount of new pipes used. By our estimate, it can be between ¥500,000 and ¥700,000 to create a new toilet compartment in a house, and close to ¥1 million to create one in a condo.

There is, however, one special situation where older condos have two toilets. One of the few used units we visited, and which we almost bought, was a 100-square-meter apartment created by combining two neighboring kōdan (apartments built by the now defunct national housing authority).

The original kōdan apartment buildings were erected in the ’60s to ’80s. They were uniformly five stories tall and had no elevators. Outside stairwells served two apartment entrances each per floor. Since the ’90s it has become increasingly difficult to sell these condos, so some developers have bought them up and combined two apartments per floor into larger apartments.

We inspected two of these remodeled kōdan several years ago, and in both cases the new apartments retained the two original toilet compartments. One even retained the two original bathrooms, though in both cases one of the two kitchens had been changed into an extra bedroom.

It was an ingenious idea and an affordable one. Both of the apartments we looked at in Chiba Prefecture were close to train stations and around ¥10 million. We might have bought one of them if the management company allowed pets. Yet they are still difficult to unload, and not because of pets. Japanese consumers like new things, and these large units, despite extensive interior remodeling, still smacked of the Showa Era.

Sometimes, even two toilets isn’t enough.

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