Dilemma: You are in a public park in Tokyo and you desperately need the toilet.
You think about holding on until you can find a convenience store, but you realize time is against you.
You accept your fate and approach the dimly lit lavatory with some trepidation, pushing open the battered, stained door with a creak.
“Most public toilets are old and some of them are scary. Not many people dare to go to them,” said Asako Miyata, director of the Inclusive City Promotion Office, which leads the Toshima Public Toilet Project, an initiative run by Tokyo’s Toshima Ward.
“Japanese toilets are famous for being very clean. There is so much written about Japanese toilets, but public toilets are sort of symbolic. There are so many luxurious, high-tech toilets in Japan, like when you go to an airport or a department store, but public toilets are more than 30 or 40 years old.”
Japan’s public toilets have an image problem, and Toshima Ward is doing something about it.
The local authority launched the project in April last year as an initiative that aims to make each of the 85 public lavatories in the ward’s 160 small- to medium-sized parks more welcoming. Each of those facilities will be renovated before the project finishes at the end of 2019, with the life cycle of the toilets reduced from 30 years to 10 years and new cleaning methods introduced.
But the project does not stop there. Several of the ward’s public lavatories have been designated “art toilets” to be painted with murals — either inside or out — bringing together professional artists and local residents to turn something mundane and functional into a work of art.
“We would like to engage our citizens so that they are part of the project,” said Miyata. “So that they know that they are part of the community and they feel more attached to where they live.
“It’s not like the government just puts in money, makes it clean and that’s it. That doesn’t last. Maybe after a couple of months or years, no matter how beautiful or new we make the toilet, it’s not sustainable. That’s why we decided to involve the citizens who live there. It’s not like they construct the toilets, but at least they can participate and paint.”
Eleven art toilets have already been completed, with another 11 set to be finished before the end of this year. The completed lavatories can be seen on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Facebook page.
The public lavatory in Asahi Park, right in front of Asahi Elementary School in the ward’s Sugamo area, was completed in April. A mural on the outside of the building features a motif of birds and sunlight in vivid yellows and blues, and was designed by professional artist and illustrator Saiko Shiiki.
Shiiki created the design, and children and parents from Asahi Elementary School were enlisted to help her make it a reality. Six families were chosen by lottery from 60 applicants to work over a three-day period painting the walls and stripping off masking tape, with roles assigned according to the height of the participants.
One of the families involved was the Fushimi family, including mother Chieko, 9-year-old Yuko and her 2-year-old sister Kiwako. Yuko helped paint the detail of the birds, while Kiwako helped strip off the tape.
Last Sunday, the Fushimi family, who live less than a minute’s walk from the park, got the chance to admire their handiwork with the extended community when Asahi Park played host to a local festival.
“The toilet used to be dirty,” said Yuko, wearing a purple summer kimono. “There was a lot of dust, but now it’s sparkling. It’s like the birds on the wall are flying in the sky above the festival.”
Asahi Elementary School Principal Shinya Kadowaki believes the shared experience of painting the lavatory has helped to strengthen local bonds.
“The design was made with our school in mind, so it helped to bring the school and the community closer together,” he said. “The designer used our school colors and took the theme of morning light (the meaning of the word Asahi) into consideration, and came up with a design that fits well with the local area and reflects the atmosphere of the school. It has invigorated the area.
“The aim is for women and children to feel more comfortable and safe using public toilets, so it makes it easier for them to use the park. It’s right in front of the school, so it helps to make everyone in the area feel comfortable, and that spreads.”
Shiiki, who is currently holding an exhibition of her work in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, is from the city of Chofu in Tokyo but was involved in a cultural project in Sugamo for several years. Miyata says a notable artist who has designed murals for Nike and Facebook is being lined up to produce further art toilets, but the emphasis is still on artists with ties to the local community.
“My job usually involves drawing pictures for the media,” said Shiiki. “This project was a great experience for me, seeing the reaction of people who were actually using it.
“I think this is something that can be extended past just toilets. When people all work together to make something, it increases your understanding of that thing.”
Miyata says the response to the project has been overwhelmingly positive, with some residents even volunteering to clean the toilets and paint the park’s playground equipment. Chieko from the Fushimi family believes the renovated facilities have provided an incentive for residents to play a part in their upkeep.
“When you have a mural like this, any time you think, ‘I’ll throw away this rubbish,’ you then check yourself and think, ‘I need to keep this place clean,’ ” she said. “It makes you hesitate. You want to keep it clean and I think it makes you more conscious of it.
“Usually you see a lot of dirt in the corners of the toilet, but now you never see that. If the base color had been gray or blue then the atmosphere would have been completely different to how bright it is now. When the base color is orange or yellow, it lights up the whole park.”
Toshima Ward is taking further steps to make its public parks more welcoming, planting more flowers and banning smoking from Oct. 1.
Miyata also intends to expand the Toshima Public Toilet Project’s reach to involve more senior citizens and foreign residents over the coming year, and she believes the Tokyo Games will provide the perfect opportunity for the city to showcase itself on a micro level.
“It’s not that foreign tourists will all come to toilets in small parks, but as an attitude for the city, we thought it would be good to make all the toilets clean and safe,” she said.
“It’s beginning to make a difference. It’s not only making the toilet clean, it’s also about how you communicate with local people through art. I guess that’s the beauty of it.”