In Praise of the Japanese Toilet Seat

In Praise of the Japanese Toilet Seat

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Toilet seat in Japan
Picture: PHOTO NAOKI / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
When is a toilet not just a toilet? We have the straight poop on Japan's mighty contributions to the art of elimination.

I didn’t realize until the end of this week that I’d missed a terribly important holiday in Japan. 

I am, of course, talking about November 10th: Toilet Day (トイレの日). 

Established in 1986 by the Japan Toilet Association, Toilet Day is marked by a special symposium dedicated to helping create more environmentally friendly and comfortable throne rooms. The org also bestows the “Good Toilet Award” (グッドトイレ賞) upon one lucky public toilet that has The Right Stuff. 

Does it seem strange to have a day dedicated to toilets? It shouldn’t. First, there’s also a World Toilet Day on November 19th, sponsored by the United Nations. And as the site for WTD reminds us, we who have access to toilets should be grateful for it. Some 3.6 billion people worldwide still can’t enjoy the cleanliness, safety, and freedom from disease that toilets provide.

But there’s a particular reason for Japan to celebrate its toilets. To be sure, some rhetoric around Japan being a “hygienic society” is clearly overblown. But the Japanese toilet – particularly the bidet seat – is a marvel of engineering and convenience. I’d go so far as to rank it as one of the top things that foreigners living in Japan miss when they return home.

The Japanese Toilet Seat Promises Warm, Clean Butts for All

Bidets are (and yes, I will die on this hill) the civilized way to stay clean after pooping. Click To Tweet

Japanese toilet seats are known in Japanese as 温水洗浄便座 (onsui sensou benza). There are a number of manufacturers who make bidet seats. The most popular by far is the Washlet by toilet manufacturer Toto Ltd.

Some of the benefits of the Toto Washlet. (Picture: Toto Washlet description on Amazon.com)

The Washlet has two key functions. The first is the warm water bidet. Yep, that’s right – a nice, warm stream of water designed to clean back there after you’ve finished doing number 2.

Advertisements

Bidets are (and yes, I will die on this hill) the civilized way to stay clean after pooping. It’s also environmentally friendly. As Business Insider notes, the water from a bidet uses fewer resources overall than toilet paper. Bidets use one-eighth of a gallon of water compared to the 37 gallons it takes to produce a roll of toilet paper. Plus it gets you cleaner, which can help reduce urinary tract infections and other illnesses.

The other function is the heated toilet seat. Frankly, I don’t know why this feature isn’t the most popular feature, especially in colder climes in the winter. There’s nothing worse than planting your posterior on a frigid porcelain throne. The heated toilet seat promises warm, inviting comfort – no matter the time of the year.

Bidets can also have numerous other bells and whistles. One of the more popular is a deodorizer that masks the smell of your…uhhh, output. Other models in public and business restrooms sometimes have a white noise function that attempts to drown out the sound of you doing your business.

The bidet seat isn’t “everywhere” in Japan. But it’s pretty damn close. According to the Web site Toilet Navigation, 80% of households have one, and there are over 113 such seats in Japan per every 100 households.

Not a Japanese Invention

What’s interesting about the bidet seat is that the idea is originally a foreign import. Toto didn’t invent the home bidet seat. The device is an import, much like castella or croquettes. Toto wasn’t even the first company in Japan to manufacture a bidet.

Let’s cut back to 1960s Japan for a minute. Back then, western-style (洋式; youshiki) toilets weren’t even the most prominent toilet in Japanese homes. In 1960, some 80% of Japanese homes had a Japanese style (和式) toilet. This is a basin laid directly into the ground over which you squat in order to force things out.

Japanese style toilet
A Japanese-style toilet. (Picture: yukiotoko / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

If you’ve been to Japan enough, you’ve likely gone into a train station or bullet train restroom where you’ve seen one of these bad boys. While they linger, they’ve largely been replaced by western-style sitting toilets. Some 99.6% of home toilets in Japan are now Western style – a resounding majority.

But in the 60s, they were still the minority. Despite this, Toto sought ways to improve the experience with Western-style toilets. To that end, in 1964, it imported a bidet seat from the American Bidet Company and began selling it in Japan. American Bidet had originally built the device for medical use.

In 1967, Ina Porcelain (now known as Lixil) manufactured Japan’s first native bidet seat, the Sanitarina 61. Not to be outdone, Toto acquired the patent for the bidet seat from American Bidet and began manufacturing them in-country.

Remember, however, that most toilets in Japan weren’t Western style! So the device didn’t take off in a huge way. Additionally, the device had numerous drawbacks: it was difficult with current tech to control both the temperature of the bidet water as well as the angle of the spray.

Around 1980, Toto unveiled the Washlet – the device known and loved today by millions worldwide. Building on its earlier models, the Washlet corrected many of the key problems with the original design.

The rest, as they say, is history. Today the Washlet is the leader in bidet seats, with over 30 million sold as of 2011. It’s become so popular that “Washlet” – a trademark of Toto – has reached the status of Kleenex and Xerox. The word is nearly synonymous with the entire concept of a bidet seat.

Why the Japanese Toilet Seat Hasn’t Taken Off in the US

In the US and UK, bidets were erroneously thought of as a form of douching – and thus were linked to "sex and scandal". Click To Tweet

Bidet seats are so cool and many people who visit Japan love them. So why aren’t they more popular worldwide? Particularly in the United States?

Writing for the Atlantic, Maria Teresa Hart says one reason is Western Christian puritanism. People erroneously thought of bidets as a form of douching – and thus associated them with “sex and scandal”. For Americans, says Hart, the bidet was a symbol of “feminine failings”. Translation: bidets are very helpful for women during their periods – and God knows we can’t do anything that’s helpful for women!

Another reason, as Business Insider notes, is that American homes don’t easily accommodate bidet seats. Usually, the issue is the lack of an available outlet. In my case, plugging the beast in will mean snaking a cord along the edge of the sink. (I mean, we’re gonna do it anyway…)

However, attitudes might be changing in the US. As noted by Fujisawa Shihoko on President.jp, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting obsession with disinfection and cleanliness has been a boon for bidet seat makers. Both Toto and Lixil report increased sales in the US: Toto sales have doubled, while Lixil sales are up 60%.

Indeed, you can get Toto and other brand bidets easily on Amazon.com in the US. Even Costco has started carrying the Toto Washlet. You can purchase decent models for as low as USD $300.

In other words, there’s never been a better time to invest in a clean, warm bottom.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy