Originally published in The South China Morning Post on June 3, 2017

The international spotlight inevitably trained on any city hosting the Olympic Games tends to unearth challenges ranging from health and safety to environmental protection and infrastructure. Among this smorgasbord of issues, the toilet is a staple.

The hundreds of thousands of foreign athletes, fans and tourists that the world’s largest sporting spectacle attracts raises the question of where – and how comfortably – these visitors will be able to powder their noses.

In the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, much discussion focused on what to do about the city’s plentiful, but malodorous, public facilities, which often consisted of a series of unpartitioned pits in the floor with no flushes or running water. Ultimately, tens of millions of dollars were spent on rebuilding and upgrading toilets into what the local media dubbed “luxurious lavatories”, suitable for use by even the sniffiest of foreign athletes.

The Olympics are now set to return to Asia in 2020, with Tokyo as the host. And toilets are back in the news. Unlike in Beijing, however, the issue is not about flushes working or the availability of toilet paper, but the potential for Japan’s high-tech commodes to intimidate and confuse users from the rest of the less-lavatorially-advanced world.

The Japanese toilet is a thing of wonder. An array of buttons along the side of a typical commode allows you to spray and dry your rear, or front. Others activate oscillation or pulsation, and raise or lower the intensity of the gush. Some models feature a little deodorising puff of air freshener. The function that automatically puts the lids or seat covers down is referred to as the ‘marriage saver’. And then there is the heated toilet seat, which rivals Kyoto in full cherry blossom bloom as a highlight of a trip to Japan.

The worry is that often toilet controls are not labelled in English. And both functions and icons vary by model. It can be nerve wracking trying to figure out which button to push. You might want to flush, but end up pressing the emergency call, and be caught with your pants down by a Japanese SWAT team in crisis control mode. Or you may want to gently spray your posterior, but end up vigorously sluicing your anterior.

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There is a story about a hapless foreigner who wanted to adjust the bidet function and ended up with tickets to a six-hour long Kabuki (a classical Japanese dance drama) performance instead. The story is likely apocryphal, but it is a fact that there are things that can be done by a Japanese toilet that many state governments would have difficulty accomplishing as efficiently.

Manufacturer Matsushita’s ‘smart toilet’ takes a urine and stool analysis, and checks blood pressure, temperature, and blood sugar. One of its models is even equipped with electrodes that send a mild electric charge through the user’s buttocks, yielding a digital measurement of body-fat ratio.

A rival company, Inax, manufactures toilets that glow in the dark and whir up lids after an infrared sensor detects a human being. When in use, the toilet plays any of multiple soundtracks to mask embarrassing sounds, including chirping birds, rushing water, tinkling wind chimes, or the first few phrases of Op. 62 Nr. 6 Frühlingslied by Felix Mendelssohn. But Japan’s toilet supremo by a wide margin is TOTO, a company that has sold more than 40 million washlets (as its commodes are called) worldwide and boasts over 60 per cent of the Japanese toilet market share.

International airports in most countries display information about cultural festivals and natural beauty, but Narita, Tokyo’s airport, is home to a TOTO toilet exhibition. “We would like to share the sense of toilet comfort and technology that is so important in Japan with the rest of the world,” a sign says at the entrance.

TOTO has also opened a US$60 million museum in the city of Kitakyushu that displays 950 of its products, including lavatories designed for extra load-bearing in sumo wrestling stadiums, as well as bathrooms installed at Tokyo hotels for the 1964 Olympic Games.

In fact, the influx of foreigners for the 1964 Olympics was partly responsible for hastening the transition from traditional squat toilets to the luxurious lavatories of today’s Japan.

But, long before the commode became the kind of futuristic gadget that might be expected to talk to you, the toilet had a special place in Japanese culture. In his essay In Praise of Shadows Junichiro Tanazaki, one of 20th century Japan’s finest writers, called the Japanese toilet a “place of spiritual repose ... the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects, or the song of birds, to view the moon...” It was the toilet, he theorised, where haiku poets were most likely to come up with ideas.

Indeed, consider master Kobayashi Issa’s 1822 poem:

Even the outhouse

Has a guardian god...

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In Japanese folklore, Kawaya-no-kami, or the toilet god, is a popular deity. Traditionally the content from outhouses was used as fertiliser, so Kawaya-no-kami was associated with good harvests and fertility. The deity was also invoked to protect people from falling into the toilet pit and meeting a rather messy end.

A properly appointed toilet was decorated and kept as clean as possible, since Kawaya-no-kami was imagined to be very beautiful. The state of the toilet was said to have an effect on the physical appearance of unborn children. Pregnant women asked the toilet deity to give boys a “high nose” and dimples to girls. If the toilet was dirty, however, it was believed to cause children to be born unattractive and unhappy.

For 2020, Tokyo is determined to ensure that sports fans have secured all necessary blessings from Kawaya-no-Kami. Japanese manufacturers are determined to unfurrow the brows of toilet-challenged tourists by standardising the iconography used on toilet controls. The Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association has agreed on eight symbols that signify: big flush, small flush, raise the lid, raise the seat, dry, front bidet, rear bidet and stop. All new toilets now feature the icons. Meanwhile, public toilets will be refurbished to bring them in line with these standards as well, leaving visitors with nothing to worry about, save to sit back on the heated seat and craft haikus in praise of the potty.