Japanese public restrooms – Lean in action

Today I decided to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city, and I went on an excursion to a small rice farming town in near Mount Fuji.

I usually travel by train, but today we went by minibus. This was only my second time out of the city via the highway system, and thus only my second time at a Japanese highway rest stop. I had a good experience at my first Japanese rest stop in April, but this rest stop bathroom was amazing.

The rest stop today had the best public bathroom that I’ve ever been in! And it was great to see Lean principles of visual systems, standard work, and 5S in action.

Clear visible signage was everywhere

When you first walk into the bathroom, you are greeting by a large map of the restroom that lays out the entire floor plan and indicates which stalls are available (green light) or occupied (red light).

Visual map of the restroom, indicating which stalls are occupied and which are "Western" versus squat toilets.
Visual map of the restroom, indicating which stalls are occupied and which are “Western” versus squat toilets.

Prepared for customer demand

They clearly understood the spikes in customer demand that happens when multiple tour busses pull up at the same time.

Ready for the tour bus to unload.
Ready for the tour bus to unload.

There were many stalls, including Western and squat toilets, baby changing areas, and clothes changing areas. The men’s room also had baby changing areas.

Both the men's and women's restrooms had stalls for baby changing and children's toilets.
Both the men’s and women’s restrooms had stalls for baby changing and children’s toilets.

Ergonomic, clean, and equipped

The stalls were clean and spacious.
The stalls were clean and spacious.

The stalls themselves were clean and spacious, with all necessary supplies available in each stall.

There was a place to put a cane (including instructions for use), a child toilet seat, and a child restraint (so your toddler is safe while you use the toilet).

The actual stalls also had great signage and clear directions for how to use the equipment. The visual instructions were simple to understand, if you if don’t read Japanese or English.


A cane stand, situated egonomically by the toilet.
A cane stand, situated egonomically by the toilet.

Standard work for toilet operation

Given the complexity of many Japanese toilets, I appreciate the multiple languages and simple visuals giving instructions.

Having had a few mishaps (and literally, some misfires) when I first arrived, I would have appreciated such great instructions on our toilet at the hotel and our apartment.

Visual and written instructions for how to operate the many functions.
Visual and written instructions for how to operate the many functions.

Note the common Japanese toilet features such many bidet services, as well as the “privacy” sound of fake water running so that others don’t have to listen to you.

How to use a Western-style toilet.
How to use a Western-style toilet.

In case you are new to Western style toilets, there are instructions for use.

Instructions for how to flush.
Instructions for how to flush.

I think about my experiences at most American rest stops or public bathrooms….. We have a lot to learn from the Japanese!

Update (June 2016): A year later, Christoph Roser wrote a similar article about his observations about Lean and Japanese public toilets.

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Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 127 Articles

Lean thinker and coach. Passionate about developing people. Healthcare change agent. Living in California again after 18 months in Tokyo. Writing about lean and leadership.

  • Thanks for sharing. Fascinating!

    I’ll play friendly devil’s advocate on two points if I can…

    1) Is the sign with the blinky lights an example of “overprocessing” and something that adds unnecessary cost and complexity? It’s easy to see if stalls are available if the door is open a crack (hopefully) or worst case, you push on a door and it’s locked. Maybe that’s troubling or annoying, but I wonder if the electronic sign was a solution looking for a problem.

    2) Visual instructions are great, but many make the argument that a consumer product is badly designed if it requires signs and instructions. Think of the beautiful paper towel dispenser (a simple device to use) that has instructions about “place hands here.” Donald Norman (author of a great book, “The Design of Everyday Things”) would argue that things should be visual and intuitive to use (which means we don’t need bilingual signs or word-free illustrations).

    But again, thanks for sharing what you’re seeing and experiencing there!

  • I do, however, want a fancy Japanese toilet seat for home! 🙂

    That’s more of a want than a “need.”

  • Hi Mark –

    Glad you are enjoying the post and thanks for the comments. Points taken, although I would make some counterarguments as well.

    1) I’m guessing that you haven’t spent much time in the women’s toilet gemba…. I can’t tell you how many times there is a long queue at the toilet and that I’ve either had to walk along multiple rows of stalls, ducking my head under to see if it’s occupied. And if someone isn’t willing to do this in front of you in the queue, bathroom stalls could turn out to be unoccupied while we were all dying to use the toilet. So, while perhaps a bit of over processing, I’ll trade it for the waste of waiting time. 🙂 Also, in this particular bathroom, given then number of stalls (hurray!), there wasn’t good line-of-sight for the different rows, based on where you would be queuing.

    2) I agree that the toilet features can be quite complicated and definitely could be simplified here. I wonder of some of this is a cultural difference. As an American, I would have never thought of the “feature” of having music or faux water sounds played as an option that could be offered. I also was unaware of the variety of bidet sprays (intensity and angle) and should have chosen a different function at my hotel in Japan (even though there were photos)! 🙂 Many Japanese toilets are self opening and flushing though, which eliminates the need for the “how to flush” instructions. I’m going to have to unlearn this habit when I’m back in the U.S. this summer. I’ll have to check out Norman’s book though!

  • I wish we hadn’t just bought new toilets for our house in the U.S. before we moved here. It’s going to be hard to go back. The warm seat in winter is very nice. 🙂

  • I have *not* spent time in the women’s toilet gemba 🙂

    Thanks for the reply and for the post.

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  • I just read your blog from a few years ago about a toilet being badly designed if it needs instructions.


    I agree that they are WAY too complex in most cases here (though features might have been ones I’ve never contemplated before). I’m going to take a survey of some of my Japanese friends to see if the toilets are more intuitive for them, or just as complex.

    I wish I’d taken a photo of the sink I saw a few weeks ago that had the hot air drier attached to the spout. It was a bit unnerving – and definitely not intuitive!

    I’ll continue to keep my eyes out for bad designs – and please do the same. I enjoy the laughs.

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  • Steve Edwards

    I’m a little late to this post, but I just stumbled upon it and wanted to relate a great story from one of earliest trips to Japan. A group of 15 co-workers were visiting and for several this was there first trip to Japan. As we were packing to leave I received a call asking me to come to a co-workers hotel room. When I arrived, his door was open, and I could see his feet sticking out from the bathroom. He asked me if had any tools. I said no and asked what he was up to. He was trying to take the seat off the toilet, because as he said, “This toilet seat warmer is the best damn invention in the history of mankind.” It took all of my powers of persuasion to convince him it was not in his best interest to steal the toilet seat.

  • Steve – It’s never too late to read and comment! Thank you for sharing your story! Stealing the toilet seat would definitely not have been looked upon well!…though I understand your co-worker’s desire to have one for himself. The amazing toilets are one of the small highlights of life that I miss daily now that we are back in the U.S.

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