Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
The government crowned the country’s best communal loos to help female employees feel more comfortable in the public sphere.
Japan’s public toilets are notoriously luxurious. The most elegant loos in department stores, airports, and highway rest stops boast amenities such as plush couches, surround sound music, art exhibits, and even a booth that blasts pollen off users’ bodies by air jet. Such features are found among the 28 bathrooms the Japanese government chose for its “Toilet of the Year” awards last fall.
One winner at the Narita airport doubles as a working showroom of toilet technology, showing off the wonders of Japanese commodes. The competition also recognized bathrooms devised for people with disabilities (one winning design includes a separate toilet for a service dog) and makeshift toilets designed for survivors of natural disasters. The main group the contest targeted, though, was Japanese women—which is evidence of the government’s desire for women to increase their participation in the public sphere.
Japan’s government has been encouraging more women to work outside the home to jumpstart the country’s sluggish economy. Haruko Arimura, Japan’s minister for women’s empowerment and the force behind the competition, believes that high-quality public toilets can help in this regard. “Without appropriate environments where women can use sanitation facilities, their access to social participation in schools and workplaces is restricted,” she told Japan’s World Assembly of Women last year.
A number of the contest’s winners included such features as lactation rooms and more toilets for women than for men in order to shorten the notoriously long lines women endure. The government also awarded a portable pink latrine at a construction site that has a board on which female workers can stand so that their feet don’t touch the ground while they change clothes.
CityLab has previously written about similar initiatives in India, including safer bathrooms for women and maxi pad dispensers to bust the stigma against menstruation and keep girls in school. Yet in an uber developed country like Japan, the issue of public toilets may not be the most pressing in terms of empowering women.
Indeed, some Japanese women were skeptical of the competition, pointing out that obstacles bigger than a lack of women-friendly bathrooms are keeping women from joining the workforce. At the end of April 2015, for instance, the parents of 23,167 children had not been able to place them in a day care due to a dearth of certified outfits—up 1,800 children from the previous year. When this occurs, mothers are usually the ones to leave their jobs to care for the children.
As one Twitter user wrote about the toilet awards, “The government is missing the point. They should work more on issues such as the lack of childcare facilities.”