Space & Innovation

Japan Wants You to Understand How to Use Its Toilets

A new standardized system of of eight symbols is designed to help tourists navigate the country's notoriously confusing high-tech bathrooms.

As anyone who's ever been to Tokyo can tell you, the Japanese are very serious indeed about their toilet technology. Restrooms in Japan, both public and private, are jammed with an array of gizmos and doohickeys that can be profoundly disorienting to a first-time user. That button might mean "flush," and then again it might mean "close lid" or... hmm, perhaps "undercarriage wash."

This week, Japanese officials made some moves to address the problem by establishing a standard system of pictograms to be adopted by all manufacturers in the industry. Going forward, this set of eight symbols will be deployed throughout all public facilities in the country.

At the official launch event in Tokyo - as we say, Japan is serious about these things - representatives from the nation's nine major manufacturers unveiled the new official system of symbols. The plan has been in the works for quite some time, evidently, in response to tourist complaints that Japanese bathrooms are terminally confusing.

The Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association cited a 2014 study, in which 25 percent of foreign respondents said they were unable to decode the various images used on buttons in high-tech bathrooms. There's probably a "bum steer" joke in here somewhere, but we're trying to run a classy operation.

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The new initiative is part of the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Public officials are also planning an overhaul of street signs, safety indicators and other common public markers.

As to the bathroom pictograms, the eight new symbols are designed to instruct visitors, via language-neutral pictograms, how to activate the "long flush" and "short flush" options; the front and back cleansing and drying functions; the heated seat option; automatic open-and-close; and the off button. Many Japanese bathrooms also have automated music, temperature and deodorizing systems, but you're on your own there.

According to the official statement, the ultimate goal of the public-private program is to provide visitors with "a toilet environment that anyone can use with peace of mind."

Can't argue with that.

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