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Japan's public toilets are not only clean, they're clever

Multifunctional and multilingual toilets are cropping up ahead of the Olympics

New toilets installed at the Ebina Service Area, a highway rest stop southwest of Tokyo on the Tomei Expressway, have sensors in the seats that can measure driver fatigue. (Photo by Yoichi Iwata)

TOKYO -- Say the words "public toilet" in most countries, and the reaction you will get is likely one of mild distaste, if not outright disgust. Less so in famously fastidious Japan, where public toilets are smartening up ahead of the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Toll road operator Central Nippon Expressway in late December installed 20 toilets (10 in either direction) at the Ebina Service Area on the Tomei Expressway that can measure drivers' fatigue and let them know when it's time to take a break. When the person sits down, sensors in the seat take a pulse. The technology first appeared in nursing homes and hospitals.

People doing their business at the rest stop southwest of Tokyo can push a button to measure their heart rate. The "diagnosis" takes about a minute. A green screen indicates the driver is good to go. Yellow indicates the driver is "a bit tired" and should probably take a break. Red means the driver is tired and needs rest.

"It is helpful that the toilet can measure how tired I am. Maybe I need some more rest," said one 50-something driver who used the high-tech throne.

"We hope the toilets will help drivers better understand their physical condition and drive safely," said a Central Nippon Expressway representative in Yokohama.

Last August, Japanese sanitary fittings maker Toto, which is well known for its Washlet toilets, opened remodeled public restrooms near Itsukushima Shrine in Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture.

The number of toilets near the World Heritage Site was increased from four to 26, and there are toilets for children and wheelchair users. Women's stalls are more spacious, letting them wash their hands inside the stall. The toilets are also multilingual. Tourists can get directions on how to use the washing functions on a monitor inside the stall in five languages: Japanese, English, French, Chinese or Korean.

Public toilets are being spruced up to meet an expected surge in foreign visitors ahead of the Olympics. Many cities are making their facilities barrier-free in response to the government's call for improvements. Narita Airport, which serves Greater Tokyo, is spending about 5 billion yen ($45.8 million) to upgrade toilets in some 150 locations.

"Ninety-nine percent of public toilets in Japan seem to have been converted to Western-style, seated ones," said a Toto spokesperson.

Public toilets make a lasting impression. According to a survey by Toto, 73% of foreign tourists said clean public toilets improve the image of a place.

"Although public facilities are being improved, outdated toilets will dampen the image," said Atsushi Kato, chairman of Tokyo-based nonprofit group Japan Toilet Labo. The Olympics provide an extra incentive to make toilets more accessible to disabled people and overseas visitors.

Railway operators are also trying to make station lavatories more convenient. While many stations have only one large "multifunction" toilet, Tokyu, a private railway that operates in Greater Tokyo, set up two in Futako-Tamagawa Station. It has made other stalls in the station larger.

Odakyu Electric Railway has begun a service that lets passengers check which stalls are free at three busy stations -- Shinjuku, Shimokitazawa and Yamato -- using a smartphone app, a big help for those getting an urgent call from nature.

Japan's public restrooms have been upgraded in stages. Wheelchair access became common in the late 1990s. Multifunction restrooms began appearing around the turn of the century.

Easing chronic congestion at multifunction toilets is a pressing issue. These are designed to meet the needs of wheelchair users and their families, the elderly, those with special medical needs and sexual minorities. "As a result, multifunction toilets are becoming less accessible for those in need," said Kato of Japan Toilet Labo.

These toilets are crowded because they are the only ones that have tables for changing diapers and litter boxes for those with a colostomy. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has responded by promoting upgrades to other types of restroom stalls.

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