Tokyo Despatch International

In Japan, the reign of the toilet god

Model toilet 'Neorest'

Model toilet 'Neorest'   | Photo Credit: AFP

The usual concerns around a huge international sporting spectacle, like health, safety and infrastructure, are unlikely to pose problems for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games organisers. What might be a challenge for them are the toilets. The issue isn’t about flushes working or the availability of toilet paper, but the potential for Japan’s high-tech commodes to intimidate and confuse users.

The Japanese toilet is a thing of wonder. An array of buttons along the side of a typical commode allows you to spray and dry your rear, or front. Others activate oscillation or pulsation, and raise or lower the intensity of the gush. Some models offer the possibility of a little deodorising puff of air freshener. The function that automatically puts the lids or seat covers down is referred to as the ‘marriage saver’. And then there is the heated toilet seat, which rivals Kyoto in full cherry blossom bloom as a highlight of a trip to Japan.

For 2020, Tokyo is determined to ensure that Olympics enthusiasts have secured all necessary blessings from ‘Kawaya-no-Kami’, the Japanese toilet god

The worry for the hundreds of thousands of Olympics visitors is that often toilet controls are not labelled in English. Moreover, both functions and icons vary by model. It can be nerve-racking trying to figure out which button to push. You might want to flush but end up pressing the emergency call, and be caught with your pants down by a Japanese SWAT team in crisis-control mode.

There is a story about a hapless foreigner who wanted to adjust the bidet function and ended up with tickets to a six-hour long Kabuki (a classical Japanese dance drama) instead. The story is likely apocryphal but it’s a fact that there are things that can be done by a Japanese toilet that many governments would have difficulty accomplishing as efficiently.

Manufacturer Matsushita’s ‘smart toilet’ takes a urine and stool analysis, and checks blood pressure, temperature, and blood sugar. A rival company, Inax, makes toilets that glow in the dark and whir up lids after an infrared sensor detects a human being. The toilet can play multiple soundtracks to disguise embarrassing noises, including chirping birds, tinkling wind chimes, and the first few phrases of Op. 62 Nr. 6 Frühlingslied by Felix Mendelssohn.

A place in culture

But long before the commode became the kind of futuristic gadget that might be expected to talk to you, the toilet has enjoyed a special place in Japanese culture. Junichiro Tanazaki, one of 20th century Japan’s finest writers, called the traditional Japanese toilet a “place of spiritual repose”. It was the toilet, Tanazaki theorised, where haiku poets are likely to have come up with most of their ideas. Indeed, consider master Kobayashi Issa’s 1822 poem:

“Even the outhouse

Has a guardian god...

Plum blossoms”

In Japanese folklore ‘Kawaya-no-kami’, or the toilet god, is a popular deity. Since the contents from outhouses were used as fertiliser, Kawaya-no-kami was associated with good harvests and fertility, and also invoked to protect people from falling into the toilet pit. For 2020, Tokyo is determined to ensure that Olympics enthusiasts have secured all necessary blessings from ‘Kawaya-no-Kami’. The brows of toilet-challenged tourists will soon be unfurrowed with Japanese manufacturers having agreed to standardise the iconography used on toilet controls to make them more foreigner-friendly. The Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association has agreed on a range of eight symbols that signify: raise the lid, raise the seat, big flush, small flush, rear bidet, front bidet, dry and stop. This new set of icons will be used on all toilets sold from this month on.

Pallavi Aiyar is an author and journalist based in Tokyo

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 12:53:13 PM |

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