Walking into the public toilet on a corner of Suido Avenue in Tokyo’s Hatagaya district is a first-class experience.
The lavatories incorporate built-in bidets, heated seats, and noise-making devices known as “otohime” or “sound princesses” that can drown out any embarrassing eruptions.
They sit in a bright, airy complex of white slanting walls – an area, it is hoped – that could eventually host film screenings or pop-up businesses.
While making toilets for the Japanese may sound like selling coals to Newcastle, the rebuilt public convenience here is a product of British design.
Miles Pennington, a professor of design-led innovation at the University of Tokyo and co-founder of the DLX Design Lab, is one of just two foreign architects invited to take part in the Tokyo Toilet Project, a 2020 scheme to replace 17 outdated public toilets across Shibuya ward with state-of-the-art facilities.
The values of the renovation project should be shared, Mr Pennington believes, with Britain – a nation where public conveniences are increasingly run down or scarce.
“The toilet [on the corner of Suido Avenue and Nakano Avenue] that was there was a taxi driver spot, so we did a survey of users, observing from the other side of the crossroads and counting who used it,” Mr Pennington told The Telegraph ahead of the UN’s November 19 World Toilet Day.
The research by Mr Pennington’s team – named Penny, after “spend a penny” – revealed that only 20 per cent of the users were female.
“And that was our starting point; to address this imbalance and make a welcoming place for everybody,” he said.
Japan’s capital has invested precious little in its public conveniences since a vast infrastructure boom in the 1960s and 70s.
As a result, the majority are of the hole-in-the-floor design that is seen as outdated and difficult to use, while residents complain they are also often grubby, smelly, and poorly lit, making people fearful of entering because they might be attacked.
Armed with a budget that he described as “generous”, Mr Pennington’s team held a series of community hearings, came up with multiple concepts, and listened to locals’ feedback before settling on a design.
“The idea was to create a space that would support a toilet, not the other way around,” he said.
The completed structure has the toilets set on three sides of a covered central space that Mr Pennington hopes will become a local hub.
“Our core concept was to have a community space, which is why it is called ‘…With Toilet’,” he said. “The site is on a junction, with a bus stop and people are always coming and going. That makes it a good gathering area.
“We wanted to create a mini-plaza that people would use for many reasons; a pop-up business, an outdoor art gallery, a community meeting spot and you can even use the big blank wall to project a movie onto,” he said. “So it’s a space plus a toilet.”
Ultimately, Mr Pennington hopes that the young musicians and “creative types” who are moving into this part of Tokyo will see the opportunity and adopt the facility as the local place to linger.
Tourists in Japan are often left gaping at the technologies included in modern toilets.
An array of buttons controls the strength of the flush, the power of the bidet stream, and even the strength and temperature of the air that dries a user’s derrière.
One Japanese home bathroom fittings company even has a function that automatically analyzes waste and provides a read-out of the health of its producer; it may only be a matter of time before that is also available in public toilets.
Japan also perceives toilets quite differently from how Britain has long thought of what is typically just the smallest room in a house, Mr Pennington said.
“School kids here clean the toilet and it’s the same at many companies, where the CEO cleans the toilet or sweeps up outside the office because he understands the importance of cleanliness and leading by example,” he said.
Britain can learn from the work that has gone into the Tokyo Toilet Project, he added.
“The project really does highlight the shocking lack of service in the UK, where you often struggle to find a toilet that is clean and usable,” he said.
“This is a natural process and there are many people who feel very uncomfortable – those with bowel problems or colostomy bag users and others – for whom clean and accessible toilets can provide massive stress relief.
“We have all been in desperate need of a basic human need, so why shy away from providing the best possible service and one that everyone would appreciate?”
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