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Flushed with Ambition: Sanitation Initiatives for Health and Well-Being

Katō Atsushi [Profile]


Japan has become known as the land of high-tech toilets, but the country has also been making efforts to improve its “toilet environment” as a way of boosting health and well-being. Here a long-time advocate of improvements takes a look at the array of sanitation-related activities now underway.

Wiping Out Toilet Taboos Is the First Step

Around three decades ago, the image of public toilets in Japan was that they were dark, dirty, dangerous, damaged, and disgusting. A study group was created at the time to try to make restrooms more agreeable.

The group, named Toiletpia Association, grew out of the Regional Exchange Center, a city-planning think tank that I once belonged to. Toiletpia fostered discussions between people from a variety of professions and industries, including architects, designers, landscapers, doctors, researchers, government workers, sanitation equipment makers, cleaning firms, and others.

What was the motivation behind creating a study group centered on the issue of toilets? The group arose, apparently, after the Regional Exchange Center discovered in a survey on the litter problem at sightseeing spots around Japan that tourists were turned off by the neglected condition of public restrooms. This then became a major problem to confront.

One of Toiletpia’s founders, Ue Kōo, who has been a driving force behind efforts to improve public restrooms, pointed out that one major source of the problem was the taboo surrounding toilets and the associated bodily functions. Because of this taboo, the problem was ignored, making it impossible to improve the situation.

The effort to improve restrooms in Japan got started in 1984, and over the years since has changed as the needs of society have changed. The activities over the past three decades can be divided into the following three stages: Stage 1 (1984–94)—Efforts to spotlight the issue of public restrooms and remove the surrounding taboos; Stage 2 (1995–2005)—Expanding the scope beyond just public restrooms to include the improvement of toilets used at schools, in times of disaster, and in nature spots; and Stage 3 (2006–to the present): Promoting ongoing initiatives that bring together the private and public sectors and civic groups. Incidentally, it was back in 1997 that I became involved in these activities. And in 2009, I established a nonprofit organization named Japan Toilet Labo as an umbrella group intended to stimulate the Stage-3 initiatives.

Taking the Stress out of Toilet Use

Along with improving plumbing and sewage technologies and sanitation, Japan steadily made the transition from primitive cesspool-type toilets, to the squat toilet, before moving on to the Western-style toilet and then taking another leap forward by developing the world’s first “Washlet,” equipped with such features as bidet washing and seat warming. Although Japan can boast of these world-leading technologies, toilets are about more than just technical advances.

What is particularly important with regard to toilets is to create an environment that is pleasant and safe so that people can use them in a stress-free way. This sort of environment must be suited to the needs of society and people’s daily lives.

Japan Toilet Labo has been striving to put in place an environment suited to diverse social needs, with a focus on toilets for children and sanitation measures for toilets used in the wake of natural disasters.

Students’ Aversion to School Toilets

Most kids these days are raised in households with Western-style toilets. So quite a few children only first encounter a traditional Japanese squat toilet when they enter elementary school. Many of the public elementary schools in Japan were built more than 30 years ago, so the buildings and facilities have become quite old. It can be stressful for elementary school children to have to use the restrooms in those old buildings.

A scene from a Poo-Poo Learning class at Tsurumaki Elementary School in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

According to a survey we conducted, around 40% of elementary school students avoided having a bowel movement at an elementary school toilet, and nearly 20% had a tendency to be constipated. As a way to address this problem, the Toilet Carpenters initiative was launched, which involves improving school and public toilets through group activities that involve cleaning and decorating toilet spaces. Kobayashi Pharmaceutical has also been providing support by donating Western toilets to schools and teaming up with Ōji Nepia, which produces toilet paper, to conduct an on-demand class called Unchi Kyōshitsu (Poo-Poo Learning).

It is vital to children’s health and well-being that they can have access to a stress-free toilet area. If children are hesitant to use the restrooms at school, this can negatively impact their diet, exercise, and studies. Children should also be given an opportunity to learn more about toilets and the body’s excretory process, in connection with their food education at school.

A group of Toilet Carpenters (left) at Kuragano Elementary School in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, and members of the same group (right) painting a wall at the school on July 20, 2013.

  • [2015.12.15]

Born in 1972 in Aichi Prefecture. Executive Director of Japan Toilet Labo, a non-profit organization created to address toilet-related issues. The organization’s activities include planning outdoor festivals and initiatives related to toilets in mountainous areas of Japan; conducting surveys on toilet use following disasters; improving toilet facilities at elementary schools; hosting seminars for school nurses; and organizing special courses for children on the importance of toilets and the excretory process. The NPO has also hosted study groups on how to manage toilet sanitation following a disaster and worked to train disaster-mitigation toilet advisors. Co-authored works include Genki no shirushi asa no unchi (Morning Poop as a Gauge of Health) and Yon kai no susume (Tips on Life’s Four Pleasures).

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