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Japan’s high-tech lavatory drive picks up pace ahead of Olympics

Japan's high-tech lavatory campaign driven by politics, aging and profit

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Staff Writer

Pop diva Madonna once said during her 2005 visit to Japan that she’d “missed the heated toilet seats.”

That may sum up the fascination foreign visitors have with Japan’s high-tech loos.

And more than a decade later, as Japan prepares for the 2020 Olympics, the technology evolving in its tiny private cubicles is getting so close to perfection that it’s changing people’s perceptions of what a restroom should be.

“2020 will become a transition year,” said Atsushi Kato, chairman of Tokyo-based nonprofit group Japan Toilet Labo, which has been conducting lavatory research since 1985.

Refurbishing the nation’s restrooms is a priority for the government, municipalities and businesses ahead of the quadrennial sporting event, Kato said.

Earlier this year, the government launched a tourism initiative based on Japan’s advanced toilets to showcase their bidet jets, heated seats and other bells and whistles as part of omotenashi, Japan’s culture of hospitality.

Spurred by the move, airports are stepping up efforts to give foreign visitors a chance to try some of these extravagant fixtures once they arrive in Japan.

The operator of Narita airport, Japan’s biggest international gateway, is spending ¥5 billion to refurbish 151 toilets at all three terminals before the Olympics.

The revamp will leave the airport in Chiba Prefecture with 11 fancy restrooms — six in Terminal 1 and five in Terminal 2 — each with toilets featuring the latest high-tech bidets and 50 percent bigger stalls to accommodate passengers with large suitcases.

Two of the innovative bathrooms recently opened at Terminal 2.

“We haven’t done any major work at Terminal 2 since its opening in 1992. The facilities have aged and that’s visible,” said airport spokesman Naoki Ohata.

The restrooms at Terminal 2 will be renovated by September 2018 and those at Terminals 1 and 3 by March 2020.

But the renovation isn’t being done just to wow visitors. It’s also about demonstrating inclusiveness.

“As we expect more visitors for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, we decided to equip all bathrooms with universal designs and renovate the toilets as well,” Ohata said.

One recently refurbished restroom was equipped with voice-guidance devices and L-shaped safety handrails to meet the needs of people with severe disabilities or disease and people who require assistance.

New toilets for people with service, guide and hearing dogs have also opened at Narita airport and Haneda airport in Tokyo. The new units are equipped with sinks for waste disposal, disposable pet mats, leash hooks and washstands with paper towels.

Businesses are getting into the act as well, with restroom renovations designed to address the needs of everyone, said Japan Toilet Labo’s Kato.

“(Japan) is working to make cities more accessible and livable because the population is aging,” he said. “Everyone is trying to create a society where the elderly can enjoy being outdoors, travel or shop. They are also catering to the needs of parents with small children, people with disabilities or sexual minorities.”

For instance, the new National Stadium, which is under construction, will offer five different types of unisex “multipurpose” lavatories suitable by all kinds of people, especially those with disabilities.

“Malls, airports and restaurants are considering improving toilets as part of customer service,” Labo’s Kato stressed, adding that if customers are satisfied, sales will rise.

Ginza Six, a 13-story shopping complex that opened in April, has designed spacious restrooms to promote relaxation to get customers to spend more time in the building. The women’s units, for instance, have electrical outlets in the waiting areas so customers can charge their cellphones.

The needs of people with children and people with disabilities are also addressed in both men’s and women’s lavatories.

But as bathrooms get ever so comfortable, one ongoing problem looks likely to get worse — congestion.

People have begun spending more time using restrooms to answer their email instead of the call of nature, Kato said, adding that more men than before seem to be flocking to cubicles to urinate.

Don’t worry, though. Technology is developing in this field as well.

The Internet of Things is one of the high-tech options being eyed, in conjunction with better traffic management designs, to alleviate congestion in restrooms by using sensors to indicate which cubicles are occupied or vacant. At present, IoT sensors are used mostly in offices, but Haneda airport is considering introducing them as well.

Despite these luxurious innovations, however, the truth is that much of this campaign is intended for appearances only because they are only available in a small portion of the airports and shopping complexes frequented by tourists in and outside Tokyo. The rest of the nation’s toilets, especially those in public restrooms, need vast improvement.

According to a Japan Toilet Labo survey conducted between November 2014 and December 2015, 34.4 percent of the respondents said the nation’s public toilets need to be upgraded. The survey, which drew 1,955 respondents, also showed that many are reluctant to use public restrooms because they are dark, smelly and dirty.

“Public toilets keep lagging because improving them won’t yield a profit,” said Kato. “Ensuring hygiene is the priority.”

Replacing squat toilets with Western-style versions is a good way to start as some people are in the habit of using their feet to flush them instead of pushing on the handle.

Many airports and municipalities are already planning a full transition. Subway line Tokyo Metro Co., which processes about 7 million passengers a day, plans to go fully Western by the end of fiscal 2019.

Tokyo Metro is also in the process of installing multipurpose restrooms equipped with baby chairs, diaper-changing stations, self-flushing sinks and hand-held showers for ostomate at all 138 subway stations by the end of the year.

But it’s not easy to satisfy everyone. Not all people find high-tech toilets easy to use.

For people with impaired vision and those who can’t read Japanese, it is hard to understand which button does what. In the toilet survey, some foreign users said the function of each must be more obvious and that instructions are needed in other languages.

“The current solutions are still insufficient,” Kato said.