Japan's toilet makers put a lid on button confusion

Some of the confusing bottom-wash pictograms previously in circulation.

Some of the confusing bottom-wash pictograms previously in circulation.

It’s an all-too-easy mistake for a foreign tourist to make when coming to terms with a dauntingly elaborate Japanese toilet. After reaching an uneasy truce with the pre-warmed seat, and studiously avoiding the button that plays music to disguise embarrassing noises (surely it would draw even more attention), this hypothetical visitor decides it’s time to flush — but accidentally presses the emergency switch instead. The hapless loo user is then left to explain to the would-be-rescuer why their business does not require the services of a swat team.

Never fear! The Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association is here to wipe away your tears.

The standard pictograms are for the eight major items on Japanese toilet control panels. Images: Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association

The standard pictograms are for the eight major items on Japanese toilet control panels. Images: Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association

The association, whose nine industry members include Panasonic, Toshiba and Toto, has announced its decision to standardise the control panels on newly manufactured toilets from 2017 onwards. The uniform pictograms were prompted, it said in a press release on Tuesday, by the rapid increase in the number of overseas tourists and a desire to give them “peace of mind” when using bidet-style toilets.

“Until now, each manufacturer has adopted pictograms that were thought to be the most suitable, but on the other hand, when foreign tourists use public toilets at such places as hotels and tourist facilities they point out that the operation buttons are difficult to understand.”
The new symbols. Top row, left to right: big flush, small flush, toilet lid adjustment, toilet seat adjustment. Bottom row, left to right: stop, bottom wash, bidet wash, blow dry. 

The new symbols. Top row, left to right: big flush, small flush, toilet lid adjustment, toilet seat adjustment. Bottom row, left to right: stop, bottom wash, bidet wash, blow dry. 

To further illustrate the point, the press release included the findings of a 2014 survey of foreign tourists about their difficulties while using Japanese public toilets. More than a quarter (25.7%) of the 600 respondents said they did not understand the buttons. In the questionnaire, commissioned by toilet manufacturer Toto, a further 18.5% indicated they did not know how to operate a bidet-style toilet while 14.7% said they did not understand the post-use cleaning method.

Oh, and as for our “hypothetical” tourist’s woes with the emergency button: about one in 10 respondents said they had made that very mistake.