Tales from Japan – Lean in the Japanese Public Toilet

Japanese Toilet SignWhenever I am in Japan, I look for examples of lean behavior visible to the public (see, for example, Japanese Standard Pointing and Calling). This time I would like to talk about Japanese public toilets and all the nifty features to make their use a pleasant experience. You will be surprised how much thought goes into public toilets in Japan. The same level of attention to detail is also something necessary for good lean implementations. Japanese public toilets in particular do a great job servicing the not-average user!


Multi Gender Toilet SymbolThere is currently much discussion about public toilets in America. As far as I understand it, women who look too manly or have short hair … now have to use the men’s bathroom … or something … I guess …

I think I don’t really understand the problem. It seems to be a solution in desperate search of a problem. Personally, I think public toilets are, more than anywhere else, a place to mind our own business. In any case, let’s look at the Japanese toilet.

The Entrance

Kyushu Public Toilet EntranceThe first thing is the entrance area. The picture here is from a rest stop in Kyushu, but its features are common for many public toilets in Japan. (Click on any image for a larger version.)

Of course, there are the different labels. No smoking, no (uncaged) animals except service animals. Beware of the slippery floor. I find it neat that they did not forget to admit service animals like guide dogs. While  only a small part of the population have a service animal, it is important for them.

The most important feature, however, you probably may have missed. In fact, the feature is the absence of something. There is no door! You can walk in and out without touching a door handle! Consider that in the USA, only 66% of people wash their hands after the toilet – and even fewer are using soap – and you will be glad to avoid this door handle. The percentages in Japan are even lower. There is of course still a door handle for the toilet stall, but this is behind the sink area and you can wash your hands on the way out (please do!).

The Toilet Map

Kyushu Public Toilet MapAnother neat feature is the toilet map. It gives you a detailed overview of the features of the restroom, and where to go for what. It starts with your present location, and tells you where to find the urinals and the washbasin. It also shows where you can find Japanese squat toilets and Western toilets (more below). Of course, for an average person it may not be necessary, as few people get lost in public toilets.

However, not everybody has “average” toilet needs. For example, if you are blind, it may be much more difficult to find your way around a restroom. Did you notice the braille on the map? Also, the map locates the baby changing areas, baby seating areas, and the handicapped stall. It also tells you where you can find the ostomy toilet (more below). All of this is very helpful if you are actually in need of any of these special features.

Haneda Public Toilet MapHere’s another example of a toilet map from Haneda airport. This one is missing the braille, but did you notice the little speaker below the sign? There is, in fact, audio guidance for the toilet! The blind are not forgotten here either.

Naturally, here you can find the ostomy toilet. Children’s urinals are also indicated. A neat feature – especially for an airport – is the changing board. It is a small board that can be flipped down for you to stand on when you change in fresh clothes. After all, you don’t really want to stand on the floor of a public toilet in your socks! Finally, a multi-purpose bed is also provided for disabled persons with a helper.


Waiting in Line

Kyushu Public Toilet Wait HereOn this one, I am uncertain if it is over the top or not, but they have a floor indicator for where to wait if all stalls or urinals are occupied!

This is again very much aligned with the lean principles of getting your “material” flow organized. However, in this case I am not sure how much this floor indicator is actually used. In any case, did you notice that the indicator is part of the tiles, and not merely a sticker? This means that this indicator was planned beforehand and installed when they built the toilet.

Toilet Stall Equipment

Kyushu Public Toilet WesternHere you see the equipment in the toilet stall. You find a fancy toilet with backrest, handicapped railings, a children’s toilet seat (with terrycloth cover), a sink, soap, toilet paper on either side, toilet brush, wastebasket, and controls for the space-age features of the toilet (see below). Again, this exceeds by miles what I have experienced in toilets in the rest of the world.


Ostomy Toilet

Kyushu Public Toilet OstomaMost public toilets in Japan are also prepared for people with colostomy. A colostomy is a medical procedure where a doctor diverts the intestines to the midsection (e.g., in the case of colon cancer). The waste goes into a plastic bag that needs to be changed.

Similar procedures are also done for the bladder, and both are known as ostomy. The ostomy toilet shown includes a special flushable sink, hot and cold water, soap, a mirror, and toilet paper.

Haneda Public Toilet OstomaHence, ostomy toilet procedures differ markedly. Having only a normal toilet can be quite a pain in the … midsection. While only a small part of the population have an ostomy, for them it is quite important.

Here’s another ostomy toilet, this time from Haneda, with similar features except for a shower head instead of a faucet.

Traditional Japanese, Western, and Space Age Toilets

Japanese Squat Toilet Japanese distinguish typically between two types of toilets, but in fact there are three. First, there is the traditional squat toilet. They are still popular, and supposedly have medical benefits from squatting. (There is a great related video of an unicorn pooping rainbow ice cream explaining the concept, if you’re curious. Please note that this is not an endorsement by me, as this is waaay outside of my expertise.)

JapaneseToiletBidetThe other official type of toilets are Western toilets. Yet, while there are typical Western toilets in Japan, most Japanese “Western” toilets are rather space age. These washlets include a cleaning system that washes your behind, or your front (females only) with a nice stream of warm water. Temperature, pressure, vibration, and oscillation can often be adjusted. An integrated blow drier makes this truly a paperless toilet. And don’t forget the integrated seat heating!

While this sounds odd if you have never used it, it is in my view a great feature (read the excellent Wikipedia article Toilets in Japan if you want to know more). In Japan, almost all newly installed toilets nowadays are these space-age washlets, even for public toilets. I even found them on Japanese aircraft.

Nice Touches

Kyushu Public Toilet Sink AreaThere are also some additional nice touches. The sinks in the highway restroom, for example, included flowers – real ones, not plastic! Haneda Public Toilet JanitorThe janitor schedule is usually shown, sometimes even with name and number to call in case of problems.

The Haneda Airport Toilets shown in some of the images above even have their own website, detailing the available services: Haneda Airport Facilities Listing.

Overall, Japanese toilets are very well prepared to serve the needs of all of their customers, not just the average John (or Jane) Doe. This deep level of planning, preparing, and organizing is also something I see in good lean implementations.

And, mind you, these are average public toilets in Japan. While of course there are still some (literal) shit holes, most public toilets have a lot of features that exceed what I am used to in other countries. Hence, the photos above are not really hand-picked toilets, but just facilities that I came across and took pictures of (trying very hard not to look like a pervert with a camera in the bathroom).

Hence, for your shop floor, try to think about what people need, not only normally, but also in special situations. The smoother and faster your team can resolve problems, the better your productivity will be. Hence, I hope this post gave you some inspiration (which often comes on the toilet anyway). Now go out, use that inspiration, and organize your industry!

PS: After writing this post Katie Anderson pointed out a similar post of hers on the same topic, where the occupation of the stalls was visible by green and red lights at the toilet map.

6 thoughts on “Tales from Japan – Lean in the Japanese Public Toilet

  1. Chris – I loved your article and observations, and thanks for linking to a similar post I wrote a year ago. After living in Japan for 18 months, the high function toilets and well organized, clean public restrooms (among many other aspects of daily life) continue to impress me. I’m moving back to the U.S. and I’m going to miss my Japanese toilet! I look forward to exploring more of your blog posts and observations about life in Japan and Lean.

  2. Thanks. You can get multiple inspirations from this article, Not only for lean but improving the restrooms in america as well . It is always a nightmare both for the end user and people who have to maintain it.

    One question, did any one of the articles looked into (Maybe) how easy/difficult it is to maintain?

  3. In Japan, very little gets stolen or vandalized. Hence, plastic booster seats can be placed in the toilet with little risks. Otherwise, all other equipment is fixed to the walls. As for technical problems to fix: I don’t know the details, but apparently it works 🙂

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