Last month the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released statistics from 2009 related to the cost of education in 31 developed countries. For the third year in a row, Japan was the lowest in terms of portion of GDP spent on education and schools: 3.6 percent, which, while being 0.3 percentage points higher than in 2008, is still much less than the average, 5.4 percent. (Denmark, for the record, spends the most: 7.5 percent.) Not surprisingly, Japanese families spend more for college than anyone else in the world, and in terms of how much of the money spent on education was from private individuals, Japan ranked third at 31.9 percent (after Chile and South Korea). The world average is 16 percent.

In addition, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reports that in 2010, the year the ruling Democratic Party of Japan did away with tuition for public high schools, the average family with a full-time salaried head of household still spent 5.7 percent more for education than it did the year before. In the same class of households that had high school or college students, the increase was 9 percent.

On average, a household spent ¥1.91 million a year on education, down ¥700,000 from the previous year probably owing to the tuition break. That’s about 37.7 percent of the average family’s yearly income, and the poorer the family, the greater the burden: for families that earn ¥2 to ¥4 million a year, the portion spent on school is 57.5 percent. And if you wonder where all this money goes, don’t blame teachers, whose average salary over the past ten years has decreased by 9 percent.

It also doesn’t seem to be going to school infrastructure. The education ministry says that 60 percent of all public elementary and junior high schools in Japan are at least 30 years old and have never been renovated. In major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, the portion is 70 percent. The part of the physical plant that tends to show its age the most are the restrooms. In fact, Japanese public school lavatories are infamous, as evidenced by all the J-horror movies that take place in them. Invariably they are described with “the 3 Ks” — kusai (smelly), kitanai (dirty), kurai (dark).

A recent article in the Tokyo Shimbun described efforts by several local governments to renovate the lavatories in their public schools. Depending on the size of the building, the education ministry estimates that it costs ¥30 million-¥50 million to renovate the bathrooms in one school. The main expense is exchanging Japanese squat-style toilets with Western-style toilet bowls. The changeover is expensive because in addition to new fixtures being installed, the plumbing has to be refitted. The ministry has implemented a policy to replace lavatories in all public schools nationwide, which it estimates will cost ¥30 trillion over the next 30 years.

It has also pledged to pick up one-third of the construction costs, but since the rest has to be borne by local governments, it’s not at all certain that they have the incentive for carrying out the policy. For one thing, school enrollment is dropping. The number of students in elementary and junior high schools has decreased by 40 percent since the early 1980s, and while fewer students means less expense, the schools still have to be kept up.

Tokyo Shimbun, which visited several boards of education in the Tokyo metropolitan area, says that many can only carry out renovations partially. Kawasaki, east of Tokyo, has 164 schools and in the past four years has only been able to change “some” of the toilets in 64 of them. One school in Sugita, Saitama Prefecture, spent ¥60 million renovating the lavatories in one school, and is now broke. Most local governments say they have to carry out triage: renovate the worst schools first and then hope somewhere down the line they can raise money for the rest.

An organization called the Japan Toilet Laboratory told the paper that the problem is more serious than one might think. The vast majority of Japanese children have grown up in homes with Western toilets. The household fixtures maker Toto says that 99 percent of all the toilets sold in 2010 were Western style. And according to a survey conducted by Kobayashi Pharmaceutical, 60 percent of elementary school children don’t even know how to use a Japanese toilet, but that’s pretty much all there are in public schools. If you want kids to learn you have to remove distractions, and holding it in all day is one of the worst distractions there is.