Monday 27 March 2017

High-tech Toilets and Toilet Slippers

A picture of a high-tech toilet control panel common in Japanese houses
An electric toilet control panel, common in Japanese homes
Japan's high-tech toilets continue to fascinate tourists and electric seats are a popular souvenir to take back home. Even basic toilets are big on water-saving with two flush options, small (小) and big (大). Most models will have a heated seat and integrated warm-water bidet ("washlet" in Japanese) as standard. In the picture left, the three large buttons at the top read "stop", "bottom", and "bidet". Advanced models will automatically open, flush, and deodorise. But although Western-style (yō-shiki or 洋式) toilets are widespread, Japanese-style (wa-shiki or 和式) squat toilets are by no means uncommon. In public schools for example, Japanese-style toilets remain more common, something which has become problematic since most students are unfamiliar with such toilets and some reportedly put-off going to the bathroom.
A photo of a typical household Japanese toilet with a pair of red plastic toilet slippers
Don't forget to put on - and take off - the slippers!

Another interesting feature of Japanese home toilets - which are almost always stand-alone, not in a common bathroom -  is the use of toilet slippers (pictured right). The "clean" inside (uchi =内) vs "dirty" outside (soto =外) distinction is given great importance in Japanese society, as evidenced by the removal of shoes in the genkan (porch or entrance hall) before stepping up to enter the house. Because toilets are "unclean" one has to remove the house slippers outside the toilet and put on special plastic toilet slippers inside the toilet (this has the added benefit of signalling that the toilet is occupied). Stepping outside the toilet onto the carpet while still wearing the toilet slippers is a major faux pas. I remember well the horrified look on my home-stay family's face when I once did this as an exchange student!

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The importance of the impure/pure distinction in Japanese society goes far beyond the toilet, hygiene, and germs, as previous posts on Shinto have suggested. For example, it has been argued that a fear of cultural/racial "pollution" and/or "dilution" is one explanation for Japan's reluctance to open the door to unskilled migrants and for its tight regulation of those migrants it does accept. In particular, the lack of foreign maids and housekeepers in Japanese homes - in contrast to much of the rest of Asia - has been used as evidence of Japanese people's reluctance to have the purity of their inner space "contaminated" by the presence of an "unclean" outsider. See Tsuda (1998: 337-345) and Ohnuki-Tierney (1984: chapter 2, pictured left) for more.