On the Move

Get the Lowdown on Squat Toilets

Squat toilets are still ubiquitous throughout China, Japan, and rural Southeast Asia, despite the gradual changeover to Western-style toilets in many homes and institutions. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, anyone who has traveled or lived in these countries has had the opportunity to use these toilets at one point or another.

For some, they are to be avoided at all costs, while for others they are just another minor difference to be adapted to while abroad (assuming these aren’t the standard in one’s home country).

Japanese squat toilet

Oftentimes the issue is not just the toilet itself but the perpetually wet floors and unsanitary conditions in the bathroom as a whole (I’m looking at you, China).

Attempting to squat, tissues in one hand and holding your pants up off the wet/dirty toilet gap with your other, all while staying balanced is easier said than done for the newbie. If you are overweight or have knee problems then forget it. I’ve had a few people tell me they went tumbling back down on the floor when attempting to clean, flush, or stand up. This (obviously) doesn’t happen all that often, but it does pose the question—Are these toilets really that challenging to use?

According to some polls, the answer is yes.

To the fully uninitiated, there is sometimes confusion about whether or not to actually sit on the rim of the toilet vs. balancing on the balls of your feet. In extreme cases, there is the shock of walking into a public toilet in China only to encounter door-less, half-wall stalls occupied by a few locals who proceed to stare at you while they are taking a hover over their gap in the tiled floor. Actually, this situation is not all that shocking considering the village rustics who seem to continually make the news by demonstrating their, let’s say, “free-spirited ways”—sidewalks, metro stations, or airplane seats are all fair game for an unloading.

Many public toilets in China do have stalls with lockable doors, but this luxury is strictly hit or miss. If you are traveling in more rural locations, public toilets will often amount to no more than a simple concrete structure and a floor trough separated by waist-high dividers. Many places that are actively being developed for tourism usually have “port-a-potty” style facilities as well.

Still, despite the discomfort or awkwardness, it’s no secret that squat toilets are much healthier to use. Why listen to me ramble on about this when you can instead learn all the science behind it from this pooping unicorn:

If squat toilets are still a “no go,” generally it’s pretty easy to find a Western-style toilet if in an urban environment. Shopping malls, airports, and restaurants usually have a fair mix of both types of toilets. These days, most hotels and apartments will have Western-style toilets.

If in Japan, the added bonus is the modern bidet/wash function. Some of these units are quite high-tech and feature full-on control panels with far too many buttons and settings … hilarious yet frustrating if you cannot read Japanese and there are no English translations. Adjustments can be made for water pressure, direction, and air drying. Need an alternating pulse spray, a jet of water with laser beam focus, or a heated seat during winter? No problem. There are even buttons for the sound of flushing/running water (to conserve actual water) or music if you feel that you might be in need of some “covering” sounds. Some even come equipped with built-in deodorizers, an all-too-useful option that counters many a salaryman‘s late-night sake drinking (and squid pancake eating) sessions. Once you have used these units, there is no going back to the seemingly primitive practice of smearing paper around.

Japanese toilet control buttons

Thailand is also worth noting as the norm there is a bit of a compromise between regular old toilets and futuristic butt sprayers. The standard accessory here is what many call the “bum gun.” Nothing fancy, it consists of a flexible length of hose with a squeeze nozzle, attached for easy access right next to the toilet. Why this isn’t the standard worldwide is beyond comprehension.