Don’t be afraid. If anything, get excited. Oh sure Japan’s filled with beautiful temples, food you’ll never forget, and history to get lost in; but how about using a Japanese toilet?? You don’t have to be a world traveler to know the importance of public toilets. Everyone who hears the call knows the silent voice in the back of their head anxiously whispering, “I hope this toilet is alright…” as they go on the search for a place to relieve themselves.

In Japan, this search is often something to look forward to as opposed to something to fear. There will be some buttons to go over and kanji to learn, but once you have those sussed, welcome to the luxury that is the modern washlet. Advanced technology, buttons, sensors, hoohahs and whizzbangs that will pleasantly surprise your bottom.

You’ll never want to go back, I promise.

Controls on the side of a toilet

Where it all started

In the Nara period (AD 710 to 784), a drainage system consisting of 10-15 cm wide streams existed where a user would squat over with a foot on each side of the stream. Wooden sticks called chūgi (籌木) or shi—ahem—poop sticks, were used as toilet paper. Seaweed was also used, but by the Edo period, all were replaced by toilet paper made from traditional Japanese paper. Documents from the 9th century exist detailing laws regarding the construction of fresh and waste waterways, and how to dispose of toilet waste. Sanitation and cleanliness in Japanese culture was, and still is, as you can tell, very important. It’s pretty plain to see when taking a look at these toilets!

Western style toilets and urinals began to show up in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, and became widespread after World War II, under the influence of the American occupation. Kazuchika Okura founded Eastern Ceramics (東洋 陶器), also known as TOTO, to really spread the word of the Western toilet. In 1977, Western-style toilet sales exceeded the sales of traditional squat toilets in Japan. TOTO then introduced the washlet (toilets with a built in bidet) in 1980, and the rest is history.

Fun fact: As opposed to the West where toilets are usually in the same room as the shower, Japan usually separates the toilet room from the bathing room. This is due to the belief of separating the clean from the unclean, and is usually a strong selling point in renting properties.

The Japanese toilet, huh? What’s all the hype about?

Using a Japanese toilet can range from basic to state of the art technology. While not every toilet you encounter over here will blow your mind, many will have a bidet as well as a heated toilet seat. Say goodbye to those chilly mornings, anticipating the initial cold shock on your buttocks as you sit down to relieve yourself! As of 2002, the number of private homes in Japan containing what’s commonly known in Japanese as a Washlet (ウォシュレット) or warm-water cleaning toilet, exceeded the number of households with a computer!

At first glance, these things may look like ordinary toilets, but all it takes is to look at the control panel on the side or on the wall to see settings like blow drying, seat heating, massage controls, water jet levels, motion-sensing lid opening, auto flushing, room heating, and even fake sounds to cover up your naughty bowel sounds!

Newer toilets now release deodorants after flushes, and others have power-saving modes that warm toilet seats only during historical busy hours. Some air condition below the rim for those hot and humid summer days. Top of the line models are looking into adding medical sensors which can measure blood sugar of urine, body fat content, blood pressure, the list goes on. Tell me you’re not impressed!

Toilet lever with large and small flush options

Finding your way around the controls

To find these technological wonders, look for common Otearai (お手荒い,) signs, with the universal man or woman symbols. Men should keep an eye out for the 男 (otoko) kanji, and women for the 女 (onna).

There will usually be a remote control or panel connected to, or on the wall next to the toilet, that will control the washlet functions. Flush options have two buttons labeled 大 (dai ) for big, and 小(sho) for small. To stop any function, simply find the big red “stop” button with the Kanji 止 (to). Water jet controls are usually labeled bidet (ビ デ) for females, and behind (おしり, oshiri) for males. These buttons will usually be accompanied by self-explanatory symbols.

And there you have it! Everything to know about using a Japanese toilet! You’re set! Go explore Japan’s gardens, temples, mountains, streams, oceans; but don’t forget the toilets!

For more tips about life in Japan, keep following our Go! Go! Nihon blog.