One of the mildly disconcerting surprises awaiting the foreign visitor to Japan is the sheer abundance and creativity of its toilet facilities, public and otherwise.
Elsewhere in the world, going into a public restroom could mean unwitting encounters with dirt, filth and danger. At the very least it may imply an interminable wait followed by, for women anyway, fighting for a spot in front of the mirror.
This isn’t to say that the Japanese toire (トイレ, restroom) is perfect. But still, you can expect a certain standard of cleanliness and tsukaiyasusa (使いやすさ, accessibility) in most nooks and crannies of the archipelago.
In the restrooms of the capital and other major cities, you’ll find stalls that are completely automated, with tinkly Muzak coming out of the walls, light sensors and faucets turning on and off with functional precision and, of course, the increasingly ubiquitous Washlet — a contraption that graciously cleans one’s lower extremities with absolutely no effort — all orchestrated by and for whomever happens to stroll in. And everything is almost always pika pika (ピカピカ, sparkling clean). When it comes to toilets we’ve become hopelessly spoiled.
The Japanese weren’t always like this, though in this kōon tashitsu (高温多湿, high temperature, high humidity) climate, the restroom is a prime feature of Japanese life. Okay, talking about it wasn’t exactly encouraged in polite society — anything related to the toilet bowl was referred to as birouna hanashi (尾籠な話, a low-down topic) — but ask nicely, and most Japanese have a “toire story” or two they love to tell.
Anyone who has been through the school system here has the old stand-by: toire no Hanako-san (トイレの花子さん, Hanako in the toilet stall), the ghost of a girl who died mysteriously — usually bullied by classmates and locked into a smelly toilet — who has come back to haunt her old grade school.
The older generation, who grew up in rural Japan, may come out with some pretty macabre stuff. One that’s practically legend is the story of the village brute who crawled into the compost tank of the local girls’ school and mired himself there for weeks, only to be discovered when an inquisitive student peered into the creepy darkness of the washiki benki (和式便器, Japanese crouch-style toilet bowl) and saw a pair of eyes looking up at her.
Technology has dramatically changed the toire, but something in the Japanese DNA still remembers a time when it was a dark and scary place — unbearably damp and freezing in winter, swarming with mosquitoes in summer.
For Japanese over 35, many are familiar with the experience of going camping in the country, pushing open the door to a public restroom and seeing hundreds of benjyomushi (便所虫, toilet bugs) crawling the walls. Under the circumstances, answering a call of nature required a resolute mind and bad eyesight.
In Japan, the sewage system was among the last things to be modernized. To this day, you still see public restrooms and old farm houses using compost tanks. On the other hand, it’s said that as soon as the toire became a symbol of sanitation and functionality, bugs, spirits and other interesting guardian creatures vanished, making the toire a much less intriguing space.
It is perhaps, indicative of a certain nostalgia that a song like “Toire no Kamisama” (「トイレの神様」 “The Toilet God”) was one of 2010’s best-sellers.
The lyrics were inspired by the singer’s grandmother, who held that women should clean toilets in order to honor the beautiful female deity presiding there. My own grandmother used to say that daughters who cleaned the family toilet were destined to become beautiful, and would in turn bear beautiful daughters. She was of the generation who wore aprons from the moment they got up in the morning to the second they rested on the futon at night. Naturally, toilet cleaning was something they did daily, at some ungodly hour like 6 a.m.
Because the traditional Japanese restroom is an independent little chamber separate from the bathroom, my grandmother and millions of other women paid their respects to the god of the toire with fresh seasonal flowers in handmade vases, bookcases crammed with bunkobon (文庫本, paperbacks), drawings by children and other school projects, dried coffee grounds to absorb odors, potpourri, dried herbs and anything else that would fit on a shelf or could be hooked on a wall.
Toire wa sono ikka no kao (トイレはその一家の顔, the restroom is the face of the household) is a maxim many Japanese women still believe, and live by. It’s mildly disconcerting.