National | Regional Voices: Hiroshima

Cities in Japan flush bad image with upgraded public toilets

Chugoku Shimbun

Dimly lit, stinky and dirty, toilets at a park in Yamaguchi Prefecture are scaring away local children and sparking calls from citizens for renovations.

Growing pressure is now on the city of Iwakuni, which runs the park, to follow a nationwide trend toward sprucing up public toilets as part of an effort to attract tourists and support families with children.

“The restroom is dimly lit and the pit toilets inside are filthy. My daughter is scared to go inside and she won’t use it even if she needs to relieve herself,” a 40-year-old housewife said of her 3-year-old daughter.

The toddler’s reaction is nothing new. In fact, a local kindergarten decided last year to stop taking its children to the city’s Tsuzumigaura Park, where the toilets in question are located, for a field trip because they were scared by a swarm of flies hovering over the toilet bowls.

Efforts by the kindergarten staff to clean the premises and spray insecticide beforehand bore little fruit. This prompted the kindergarten to change the destination of its excursion to a different park nearby where Western-style flush lavatories are installed.

Having opened in 1990, the park is famous for its large-scale playground equipment and observatories, and has long enjoyed a reputation as a popular destination for families from both within and outside of the prefecture. But most toilets in the park are pit latrines, which are unpopular with children accustomed to using flush toilets.

According to Iwakuni’s urban development division, 105 out of the 251 parks in the city currently have toilets. Of those, about 40 percent are pit toilets. But even flush types, which tend to be found in newer parks closer to the center of the city, can smell badly.

It’s not that the city has done nothing to try to remedy the situation.

Based on the level of decay and complaints by residents, it has chosen an average of two or three park toilets to modernize every year. For this fiscal year, it has set aside ¥56 million to renovate three lavatories, but the road ahead looks bumpy nonetheless.

“Each renovation costs about ¥10 million to ¥20 million. As much as we want to live up to citizens’ expectations quickly, financial constraints make it difficult for us to tackle a sweeping overhaul,” city official Fumitoshi Yamanaka said.

Nationwide, municipalities are taking the initiative to improve lavatories. Some are doing so by tying up with private-sector companies to secure funding, and making active use of feedback from residents.

Under a system introduced in fiscal 2017, the city of Okayama, for example, grants corporations naming rights for public toilets. In return, firms are obliged to shoulder the cost of their renovation. The system, which involves the companies working with city-appointed sanitation workers to clean toilets they have named, has helped prevent the facilities from being neglected.

In the city of Nagasaki, officials have been collaborating with a group of citizens to tour and study lavatories slated to undergo a revamp, so they can brainstorm ideas about what improvements can be made.

Feedback from the civic group has, for example, resulted in chairs for babies being installed in men’s rooms to better accommodate families with children and hooks being attached to sinks for visitors with bags. The group has created fliers urging visitors to keep toilets clean, too.

Tokyo is not outside of the trend, either. Wards in the capital have been taking steps to refurbish public restrooms in anticipation of a surge in tourists both from across the nation and overseas ahead of the Olympics.

Toshima Ward has been working toward making toilets in 24 of its parks more artistic by having their walls painted with portraits of children. It has also developed a map showing where public toilets are located, including those in convenience stores, as well as information such as which ones are equipped with diaper changing tables or have barrier-free access.

Kohei Yamamoto, a representative of the Japan Toilet Association, says reinventing public lavatories should be a high priority for municipalities.

“The lack of hygiene in public toilets can discourage people across all generations from going out, and potentially have an adverse effect on tourists’ perception of areas they visit,” Yamamoto said.

This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published on April 11.

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