Going on the Go: A Toilet Says a Lot About its Country

toilets of the world

Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP / Getty Images

I try not to get swept off my feet while I'm on the road. The goodbyes are just too painful. But now and then something touches me deep down. This happened to me in Japan when I was introduced to their toilets.

You probably know the ones I'm talking about: Ergonomic, self-cleaning, and more wires than Keith Richards' guitar. Not only do these state-of-the-art loos filter the air as you pollute it and provide an electrically warmed seat, but they also come with a James-Bond like remote control that allows you to adjust the temperature, velocity and direction of the water spray of a little retractable wand that leaves your nether regions sparkling clean. Oh, and then with a touch of a button, it will blow you... dry.

But one of the most interesting things about these high-tech toilets is what they say about Japan. It's like you can look into one of these toilets and, no offense intended, see a reflection of Japanese society: Innovative technology far ahead of the rest of the world, uncompromising cleanliness, and a trust of robotics to go where humans (or the sun) won't.

It's enough to get you wondering if other toilets are just as revealing, so to speak. Are toilet and country linked much in the way dog and dog-owner are, with frighteningly similar hairstyles, personalities and body shapes?

If we take a relatively small step across the Sea of Japan, we can get a picture of Chinese toilets. Just 20 years ago, Chinese loos were about the most primitive on the planet – communal squatters that would bring tears to the eyes of many a gastro-intestinally challenged traveler. Today, you can still find many of these same squatters (yes, still waiting to be cleaned).

But in the ramp up to host the summer Olympics, China made an effort to embrace the asses of the international community by building a system of star-rated public loos, many with four-stars (by their own standards, anyway). And at top tier hotels in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong you will even find that Japanese toilets have invaded. In other words, you've got the world's worst, the world's best, and a sketchy rating system of pubic toilets in between – sounds about on par with modern China.

European toilets are most often basic models, with a choice of flushing to conserve water for urine-only deposits. The toilet paper is typically recycled and has a perfect consistency for sanding hard woods. You'll still find a few historical surprises: chain-pull ceiling-tank loos still in action in the U.K. and some squatters in France and Italy that will stop American tourists dead in their tracks and more or less guarantee constipation for the remainder of the trip.

toilets of the world

Volker Hartman, AFP / Getty Images

There are a few toilet-country relationships that seem a bit more puzzling. Like the Netherlands. Their toilets appear to be fairly standard western sitters, but there's an oddly placed ceramic "shelf " just above the waterline where your solid waste lands so you can have a good look at it (maybe try to find an accidentally swallowed tooth or take a lab sample) before flushing it away.

It amplifies the stink and requires the user to clean the shelf with a toilet brush after every use. Perhaps this says something about the Dutch propensity for transparency or analysis. Or maybe it's a throwback to the Realism of the 17th century Dutch painters (Rembrandt would have loved it!).

India is also a bit tricky. After all, the world's first flush toilets (circa 26th century BC) can be traced to this area. Even back then, some cities in the Indus Valley had a flush toilet in nearly every house. Today, it's hard to say they've made a lot of progress. There's a multitude of western toilets, but the squatters are prevalent in rural areas and can be downright challenging on wobbling trains. In other words, it may be fair to say that things move a bit slowly in India.

What about us? In America, we've got extra-large, solid toilets that often use five times as much water as needed for each flush. And our extra-soft toilet paper comes from – this is true – virgin timber. Even when we crap, we over consume and kill forests. Our trendy restaurant and boutique hotel restrooms are offset by the gas station restrooms, where you venture in with the sort of trepidation normally reserved for entering a haunted house.

Doug Lansky lives in Stockholm. He is also the creator of the Signspotting book series and website.

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