TOKYO Japanese 6-year-olds face a shock when they enter public elementary school. After years of enjoying clean toilets with warm seats and cleansing jets of water at home and at private nurseries, they are forced to squat over what is essentially a hole in the floor -- the traditional Japanese-style toilet.
School lavatories in Japan are unflatteringly known as the "five K's" -- kurai (dark), kitanai (dirty), kusai (smelly), kowai (scary) and kowareteiru (broken). When taking their first bathroom breaks in this intimidating environment, students often struggle to find the right position. Sometimes a foot (or two) lands in the toilet.
According to a study by Kobayashi Pharmaceutical, 54% of Japanese elementary schools had mostly Japanese-style toilets, compared with 31% of nursery schools. Just five years ago, over 80% of schools had squatting-style toilets. For a country known for its hygienic, high-tech public bathrooms, elementary schools are a strange exception.
TIME TO CHANGE Public elementary schools tend to be old. Many were built in the 1970s, when Japan had far more children. In 1975, for instance, there were 10.4 million students in elementary school. By 2014, that number had shrunk to 6.6 million.
Local municipal governments -- which run and fund the schools -- have tended to focus their limited resources on strengthening the facilities against earthquakes, especially after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
But with those renovations winding down, there is a window of opportunity to refurbish school toilets across the nation. The websites of Japanese toilet makers Toto and Lixil Group have sections dedicated to school toilets, promoting various modern technologies. These include models that hang on the wall, making it easier to clean under the basin, and toilets whose swirling flushes save water while removing waste effectively.
Toilet design may actually affect children's health. The Kobayashi survey showed that students at schools with Japanese-style toilets took fewer bathroom breaks than students at schools with Western-style loos. Nearly 60% of children at schools with Japanese toilets said they have put off a visit to the bathroom. That figure was just 35% for students that have access to Western toilets.
To adapt to this reality, 61% of Japanese parents polled said they had "trained" their children at public places with Japanese-style toilets -- such as department stores, parks and libraries -- before sending them to school.
It is a peculiar phenomenon because most Japanese homes have shifted to Western-style toilets. Back in 1977, Western toilets overtook Japanese toilets in terms of production at Toto. Today, Western models account for nearly 99% of its output.
Kobayashi has been installing Western-style toilets at schools around Japan as part of its corporate social responsibility program. Since 2010, the company has placed toilets in 60 schools as gifts, and the plan is to reach 100 schools by 2019.
"We have been selling Bluelet toilet bowl bleach tablets for 40 years. It is our No. 1 product," said a spokeswoman for Kobayashi. In the year through March 2015, Bluelet sales reached $119 million, or 11% of the company's total sales. The drugmaker wants to change the "five K" image of school toilets and build lifelong Bluelet fans.