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While Western-style toilets common in Japan, many kids still face squat toilets at school

A Western-style toilet with a warm-water washing seat that replaced a Japanese-style toilet at an elementary school in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, is seen on Feb. 9, 2021. (Mainichi/Chinatsu Ide)

KANAZAWA -- Despite Western-style toilets becoming a common sight in Japanese households, nearly half of bathroom facilities at elementary and junior high schools nationwide are still traditional Japanese-style squat ones.

    As of September 2020, some 57% of bathroom facilities at public elementary and junior high schools across the country were Western-style toilets, according to a Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology announcement.

    Demand for the "westernization" of school bathrooms has gained pace in recent years amid complaints that children have trouble using Japanese-style toilets, which are unfamiliar to them, and from a hygienic perspective as a way to prevent infections including the coronavirus.

    An education ministry survey of three prefectures in central Japan's Hokuriku region showed that 79.3% of school toilets in Toyama Prefecture were Western-style -- the highest proportion nationally -- followed by 55.8% in Ishikawa Prefecture and 57.7% in Fukui Prefecture. Looking at prefectural capitals, 94.1% of toilets at schools in the city of Toyama were Western-style, compared with 51.8% in the city of Fukui and 41.9% in the city of Kanazawa, which were among the lowest results nationwide. There were disparities even within Ishikawa Prefecture: 84.9% of toilets were Western-style in the city of Nonoichi, while it was 79.5% in the town of Nakanoto, 46.4% in the city of Nanao and 45.7% in the town of Hodatsushimizu.

    According to toilet manufacturer Toto Ltd., based in the western Japan city of Kitakyushu, 99.3% of the toilets it shipped in 2015 were Western-style, making it the de facto standard in recent years. The education ministry has been promoting Western-style toilets because children are used to them, and schools use them from a barrier-free standpoint as shelters during disasters. Additionally, the ministry says that when flushing, Western-style toilets with lids on them are more effective than Japanese-style ones at preventing infections, because airborne droplets can get scattered easily around Japanese-style toilets and allow germs to grow.

    Japanese-style toilets can be particularly distressing for younger elementary school students because they are not used to them. Makoto Kobayashi, a Kanazawa City Assembly member who works on issues related to toilets, says he has heard from school principals of cases of toilet accidents during classes by students who could not relieve themselves during breaks due to other children occupying the limited number of Western-style toilets.

    But why are there disparities between municipalities? In the city of Toyama, which has one of the highest Western-style toilet ratios nationwide, the number of Western-style toilets at schools rose 48.6% from the previous survey in 2016.

    This has been achieved through the city's prioritized project to replace toilet facilities instead of renovating entire bathrooms. When Japanese-style toilets are replaced with Western-style ones, the new toilet seats can prevent booth doors from fully opening because many of them open inwards in Japan. But Toyama overcame the issue through solutions such as installing new toilet seats diagonally and making the doors open outwards. Per booth including construction fees, such work reportedly costs between 500,000 yen (about $4,700) and 1 million yen (about $9,400).

    In Kanazawa, meanwhile, the ratio of Western-style toilets rose only 12.4% from its 29.5% result in 2016. The Kanazawa Municipal Board of Education explained that the rise was low because there are many schools in the city, and that they are "addressing issues with higher priorities" including installing air conditioners. As the city has many old schools which would require plumbing work, Kanazawa officials are considering renovating entire bathrooms instead of replacing toilets like in Toyama. Construction work will take time, and it will reportedly cost some 50 million yen (about $470,000) to renovate vertically-connected toilet rooms on the first through third floors of schools.

    Asked about the schedule to westernize all school toilets during a city assembly session in December 2020, Kanazawa Mayor Yukiyoshi Yamano answered, "We'll work on drawing up an improvement plan to achieve it as soon as we can." As the installation of air conditioners to all regular classrooms in municipal elementary and junior high schools is set to be completed this summer, an official said, "We would like to take the coronavirus as an opportunity to go ahead with further westernization."

    To support municipalities' toilet westernization, the education ministry established a system in 2001 to subsidize a third of renovation costs. Factors including this subsidy boosted the national average of Western-style toilets from 43.3% in 2016 to 57% in 2020.

    In addition to citing the importance of westernizing toilets, Atsushi Kato, representative director of Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Japan Toilet Labo, said, "It's important to give people choices, such as keeping a certain number of Japanese-style toilets for people who prefer them and creating unisex toilets for individuals who need assistance and transgender people."

    (Japanese original by Chinatsu Ide, Hokuriku General Bureau)

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