Japan - ultimate high-tech toilets

23rd of May 2019
Japan - ultimate high-tech toilets
Japan - ultimate high-tech toilets

In Japan washrooms are a holy area, whether it’s at the office, or just a random public washroom in a park. Although they are already outstanding, the Japanese continue to invest in technology. It makes the life of cleaners much easier. Bobbie van der List reports for ECJ.

The idea that washrooms are almost sacred in Japan perhaps has a historical reason as well as a practical one. People consider taking care of one’s body an essential part of daily life, whether this is inside your home, at a restaurant, or at the place you probably spend most of your time: work. The climate in Japan, with a high level of humidity for a large part of the year, is one important reason for their concern for washing in general.

This is reflected by Japan’s variety of bathing options throughout the country: from a “sento” (regular bathhouse) to the fancier “onsen” (bathhouses connected to a hot spring).

Invariably toilets are very well maintained, and keeping them clean is a big concern for Japanese companies. Not only do workers take good care and pride in keeping the toilets clean – the fact that cleaners come several times a day to properly clean the toilets adds to their overall cleanliness.

I witness this at my own office, located in Tokyo, every day. Three times a day cleaning staff do a routine round of cleaning. “I’m entering the washroom now, my apologies,” the lady warns people inside the washroom. The thorough clean is quick and efficient. With a bow colleagues greet her, and show respect for the job she performs every day.

Of course, this does not say anything conclusive about how clean toilets are, but I do like to believe it strengthens people’s conviction that keeping the washroom clean is of utmost importance.

Having said that, toilet visits are somewhat of an alienating experience for foreign visitors - with the number of buttons, the music coming out of a speaker, it all seems rather bizarre. Yet, it shows how much attention the Japanese bring to the design of toilets.

In preparation of the Olympic Games of 2020, which will be held in Tokyo, the Japanese government is working hard to make the Japanese toilets even more sophisticated than they already are, as it launched a so-called national toilet improvement campaign.

A good washroom is a good expression of Japanese hospitality or omotenashi - that’s how people in Japan think. To ensure that companies are willing to go the extra mile in maintaining clean and well-designed toilets, the government started an annual award ceremony called Japan Toilet Grand Prize.

A nice side effect could be boosting innovations in toilet technology, analysts say. The idea is to finalise the transition of the toilet as merely of practical use to so-called “comfort room”, the Japanese government announced last year. As the numbers of tourists has doubled in merely a few years – 40 million in 2017 – the government emphasised it wanted to bring comfort to foreign visitors as well.

Icons: time for a change

One of the core objectives in improving toilets in Japan, is standardisation of toilet icons, which have been troubling for foreigners, as the explanation of the rather complicated toilet is written in kanji (Japanese).

Toilet icons, silly though it may sound, have caused quite a few headaches in the past few years. At a press conference earlier last year, representatives from the nine companies that make up Japan’s so-called Sanitary Equipment Industry Association shared their ideas for eight new icons to add to already existing functions in standard toilets. They hope that it can eventually be standardised on an international scale, which would make it profitable, as they could potentially export the technology to foreign countries.

But what are the proposed changes and what does a regular standard toilet exactly look like in Japan? From left to right you will see the following buttons: raising the lid, raising the seat, big flush, small flush, rear and behind spray, dryer, and a button to stop spraying.

Incredibly, these functions aren’t the only features one might find on technologically advanced toilets in Japan. There is possibility for warm air drying, heated seats and a wide range of so-called bidet spray functions. In fact, the eight manufacturers I mentioned earlier came up with ways to control heating and air conditioning systems for the toilet room.

At Narita Airport, the biggest airport near Tokyo, so-called designer toilets will be built. At one of the terminals they are including a voice-guidance system that helps blind users to use the bathroom. For deaf people, a Narita Airport representative explained, they will create a light alert system, so that they would be warned in case of an emergency, such as an earthquake.

Inside the airport, users are very happy to hear about the changes. One traveller explains that it is important for Japan to retain its position as global leader in technological innovations. “But I also think it is good to have comfortable washrooms. If you look at the technological possibilities we have, some of the toilets in Japan are very old-fashioned,” he explains.

This is particularly true for certain places outside of Japan, where squatting toilets are the standard. With a ageing population and the influx of tourists, Japanese companies and authorities need to think of the risks of such facilities.

A spokesperson of Narita Airport said: “We decided to equip all bathrooms with universal design and renovate the toilets as well.” The total costs amount to an incredible €41 million. Yet, the government believes that welcoming foreigners in a neat and clean way reinforces the positive ideas people often have of Japan as a clean and organised country.

A dream for toilet cleaners

One of the toilet producers in Japan, Toto, developed a groundbreaking self-cleaning toilet. A representative of the company explained to Japanese media how they wanted to “improve bathroom experiences for locals and foreign visitors”. Yet it is also a particularly revolutionary development for cleaners.

Whereas many westerners often are reluctant about the prospect of robots replacing humans – as we would be losing our jobs – in Japan they are embracing this new technology. Not only because there is a lack of cleaning staff in rapidly ageing Japan, the assistance of robots enables cleaning staff to use their time much more efficiently, and clean certain areas they would otherwise not have the time to clean.

According to Tota cleaning staff of public toilets, which are a common sight in Japanese cities, are embracing the new technology “that allows one to maintain cleanliness more easily”.

In Higashi-Ikebukuro, a quiet part of Tokyo, a staff member of a local municipality responsible for cleaning public toilets had to get used to the fact that he didn’t have to clean the seats any longer. He smiles and says that his job has become a little bit easier. “Instead I have more time now to clean door handles, doors, mirrors and hand dyers. So, it is definitely progress!”

A woman who prefers to remain anonymous tells me that it feels like she is the star of a science fiction film, laughing. “I think it is good though, for users and for cleaners. No matter how you think about it, if you can have a robot clean a toilet seat that is the preferred method, always,” she says.

The company hopes to export the new technology to other countries as well in the next few years. In fact the hope is that people will be introducing this type of technology into their own bathrooms as well, which would save a lot of time for other chores.

Interestingly, other organisations have decided to go through revolutionary changes as well. Tokyo Metro, the country’s biggest public transporter, said it would change the squatting toilets to western-style toilets by this year, a year before the Olympic Games are coming to Tokyo.

The difference between high-tech toilets and the squatting toilets is huge in terms of comfort, and the effort it is requiring from cleaners to clean the two types of toilets. It does say a lot about Japan’s attitude towards change: on the one side, it is leading in developing cutting edge technology – also in the cleaning sector (we looked at cleaning robots in the February/March edition of ECJ) – but Japan is a very traditional and conservative country as well. Some things are better left untouched, like squatting toilets.

A change in mindset

Yet some of the changes that are happening signal a changing mindset in the sanitation and cleaning industry. Aware of the demographic reality that the population is shrinking, it seeks possibilities to clean more with a smaller group of cleaning staff. This is an issue European nations are struggling with as well. Therefore it would be worth looking into for European policy makers - to see how we can leap into the digital age and make the work of cleaners much easier.


Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited