Toilets are Japan in a nutshell. Ok stick with me here, on first observations, what I have just said may sound a little disparaging about the Japanese culture, people and land. I see Japanese toilets as a wider metaphor of Japan, the paradox between tradition, ancient history and culture juxtaposed with modernity, high-technology, and the latest fashions in Asia.
And of course no blog about Japan would be complete without at least one post about the toilets in Japan. In fact I would say that it was pretty much the first thing I noticed when arriving in Narita airport, after a long 11 and half hour flight, and much glugging of water in the aeroplane; Japanese toilets are a commodity of extremes.
In Japan, there are generally 2 types of toilet: the super duper, hi-tech, cooks your food, answers your emails and makes your bed type of toilet….and the one I affectionately like to refer to as ‘hole in the floor’. The latter are apparently more adapted to how human beings are supposed to, ahem, powder one’s nose…that is to say, squat. And in all my time in Japan, they were the ones I actively avoided when possible, steering towards the helpfully labelled ‘Western style toilets’ (yoshiki). I never quite worked out how they were supposed to be used and found them to be a general inconvenience, particularly when they were the only option available. Sources now inform me that you are supposed to face the plumbing, but whichever way I looked at it, impracticality screamed out each time I paid a visit.
This is not to say I fully embraced the hi-tech toilets either. In fact I would say I had just as much, if not more difficulty in using these toilets. Females retain the reputation among men for taking an extraordinarily long time in toilets and I feel in Japan, I broke all records. Having finished my business, I was faced with an array of buttons (below):
For a non-Japanese speaker like myself, I ask you, what would you press? My concern was that I would inadvertently press one of the spray or deodoriser buttons and receive a jet straight into my face. Equally I could, and did not want to leave the toilet without flushing. I feel that I would be bringing shame upon Europeans by leaving the toilet unflushed particularly as Japan is such a clean and polite nation. After a 5 minute deliberation, and logical deductions, I correctly answered the ‘Toto Toilet Multiple Choice’ and escaped dry and feeling somewhat accomplished.
The toilet…my holiday romance…
No trip abroad is complete without that special encounter…no disrespect to my boyfriend, but I did kindle a love affair in Japan… the heated toilet seat in our flat. That first week back in England was a shock, how I howled on my first rendez vous with the ceramic, freezing cold toilet seat! I lamented to my boyfriend of my sorrows and warned him of the misery he would experience on his return back to France. Of course, he being of a practical nature, had already put preparations in place, he was starting the adaptation process by gradually lowering the heat of the toilet seat. What a brain eh?
So what has this got to do with ethical and green issues? Well a lot more than you’d think. Not only do I believe toilets to be a metaphor of the Japanese culture, they are also another symbol of the hyper consumerism in Japan. As much as I loved the toilet in our flat, and felt it to be a true blessing on night time visits, I also knew that this was a dreadful waste of electricity. We weren’t obliged to have the toilet seat heating switched on…but ashamedly we did for our comfort, even on those scorching days in May. And I’m pretty sure most of the Japanese probably do the same. And then there are all those public conveniences, which not only heat, they squirt, clean, dry, deodorise, and even play a flushing sound for those who don’t want their tinkles (or plops) to be heard. My personal favourite was upon entering the toilet in a restaurant in Hakone, the lid lifted up in greeting to me. Completely unnecessary but amusing, and somewhat endearing.
These BlackBerrys of the toilet world are more commonly known as washlets and are manufactured by the company Toto. First introduced in the 1980s, they have evolved to become bigger and better and include features to adjust squirt strength, jet pattern, water temperature and deodoriser power!
Conversely the squat style toilets are unsurprisingly much more ecologically and also economically sound, since not only are they cheaper to manufacture, they use less water and consume no electricity. There are also, unbelievably, numerous health benefits attributed to the use of squat toilets. The more hi-tech toilets have led to problems known as ‘Washlet syndrome‘, where a person gets too emotionally attached to the washlet, and overuses the spray function which leads to rashes among other things. Nice.
As I mentioned, it is not uncommon for flushing sounds to either play automatically or on demand. This technology developed in response to failed education campaigns to stop Japanese women flushing the toilet numerous times to disguise urination sounds. So at first glance, although it may seem like another ridiculous use of electricity, Otohime or the Sound Princess, as it is known, is in fact a water saving device to stop toilets being flushed unnecessarily and is claimed to save up to 20 litres per visit. Although some Japanese women find these sounds too artificial and so continue to flush the toilet several times.
Another environmental advantage of the washlets is the supposed assumption that it uses less toilet paper, however many Japanese still use a combination of the water jets and paper. And if you are like me…I avoid jet cleaning altogether, so no saving of paper here. My reaction is perhaps typical of a European and part of the reason why these toilets have not taken off in Europe. Another strong contributory factor is that due to legal and health and safety restrictions in much of Europe, Australia and New Zealand electric outlets near to sources of water are prohibited.
I never really considered the safety risks of these heated toilet seats near water, and fortunately never sustained any electrical shocks. However many a toilet would warn of the potentials risks of scalds from heated toilet seats…So along with the continuing guilt I would accrue from the gratuitous consumption of electricity, I guess it’s just as well I’m back to the cold hard reality of a European toilet seat.