If there’s one thing Japan is passionate about, it’s toilets. Potties, loos, restrooms, john, powder room, however you say it, Japan has put a lot of thought into the smallest room of the house Here are some of those traditions that make Japan truly unique in the sanitation atmosphere of the modern world
Hail The Toilet God!
You know how Japan’s washrooms got to be so clean and full of advanced technology? Maybe because they’re being watched over by a toilet god.
According to the myth, Kawaya-no-kami, the Japanese toilet god, was, appropriately enough, born from the excrement of Izanami, the Japanese goddess of the Earth and darkness. In a time long before Washlets, the contents from outhouses were used as fertilizer, so Kawaya-no-kami was said to both provide a good harvest and also protect people from falling into the toilet pit. In 2010, the song “Toire no Kamisama” (“The Toilet God”) was a hit.
Japanese loos, almost always a separate room in the house, often feature flowers to keep the toilet god happy.
This also helps uphold another Japanese maxim, Kaori Shoji wrote in the Japan Times, “The restroom is the face of the household.”
The Ghosts Of Japanese Bathrooms
In Japanese folklore, there are a number of spirits rumoured to appear in bathrooms. Some reach out from the insides of toilets; others whisper through the stall walls. Each one has its own grim story and particular behaviour, but they all share a connection to the bathroom.
Toire no Hanako-san
One of the best-known of Japan’s bathroom spirits is Toire no Hanako-san, or Hanako of the Toilet. Like all ghost stories, the details of Hanako’s origins vary somewhat from telling to telling, but in general, Hanako is said to be the ghost of a young girl who died around WWII, and now haunts school bathrooms.
Depending on regional variations, Hanako will respond by saying, “Yes I am,” or a ghostly hand will appear. If someone enters the stall, they could also be eaten by a three-headed lizard.
Hanako is not the only young girl said to haunt the bathrooms of Japan. There is another legend of a young girl named Kashima Reiko, said to be the ghost of a girl who died when her legs were severed by a train. Her legless torso now haunts bathroom stalls, asking unlucky visitors, “Where are my legs?” The correct response, “On the Meishin Expressway,” could save your life. Otherwise, it’s said that she might tear a person’s legs off.
One of Japan’s most famous mythological creatures, the kappa is said to sometimes found in bathrooms. However, it is not specifically thought of as a bathroom spirit, but more generally as a creature associated with water—usually rivers or ponds. But there are a lot of legends in which the kappa appears in an outhouse, where it harasses people (especially women)
One function of the Western toilet in Japan is famous enough to warrant its own section. The Japanese, particularly women, consider it good manners to silence any sounds you make in the toilet stall. Because of this, many toilets have a Otohime or “Sound Princess” feature. The Otohime masks all sounds by replicating a toilet flushing. This also saves water, as the user doesn’t have to flush the toilet more than necessary.
The Japanese take off their shoes when entering a private residence and put on house slippers. The bathroom is considered an entirely separate part of the house, and usually family members and guests are expected to take off their house slippers and use a pair of bathroom slippers when entering. Though it might seem a foreign concept to Western minds, it’s an important factor when visiting a house or traditional Japanese hotel. Take off the bathroom slippers immediately upon exiting and put on your house slippers.
Using Traditional Japanese and Western-Style Toilets
There’s a big difference between a traditional Japanese toilet and the Western style to which Americans are accustomed. The Japanese toilet is sunken into the ground, with a hood covering part of it to prevent water from splashing up when you flush. To use it, you squat or kneel facing the hood with your legs on either side of the toilet. A lever or button near the hood flushes the toilet. The Western-style toilet looks almost exactly as you would expect in Western countries but is often electronic and features several buttons with various wash and dry functions for men and women. If the seat feels warm when you sit down, it probably has a heated seat function. The traditional Japanese toilet is still used in the majority of public restrooms throughout Japan, but Western-style toilets are prevalent in metropolitan areas. Here are four things you might not know about Japan’s obsession with lavatories.
There’s an app for that
There are a bunch of apps in Japan that can help you find the nearest public bathroom, or one with a special facility, like large stalls with facilities for people with ostomates (a relatively common issue in rapidly aging Japan).
Lion, a manufacturer of diarrhoea medicine Stoppa (and various toiletries and detergents), provides an app @Toilet for people who need to take care of their business urgently away from the home or office. Click on the “emergency” button and it locates the closest restroom.
NPO Check operates a free app called Check a Toilet, listing over 53,000 restrooms in major cities. It shows restrooms nearby with information including whether they’re wheelchair accessible and/or have ostomate-friendly functions. Users can contribute by submitting information on the restrooms they’ve visited.
There are toilet rituals
Different parts of Japan sometimes have customs associated with toilets.In Aichi prefecture, there’s a tradition known as “benjo-biraki” (opening of the toilet) during which people sit on the loo to eat snacks and sip tea. The Asahi Shimbun reported in August on a ceremony to celebrate the new restroom at Nagoya Bunri University in Aichi. The tradition honours the deity of the bathroom, the paper reported. A group of students placed a cushion on the toilet seat of a restroom in the new building, and one by one, participants including the school’s chairman and president, sat on the toilet seat and ate rice cakes and green tea.
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