Monday, June 25, 2012

A Public Bathroom Emergency!

One of the nice things about Japan is the abundance of public restrooms.  Located in train stations, convenience stores, and parks, the public restrooms are (usually) clean and well-maintained.  I can't count the number of times I have been taking the train with Little TF and heard the dreaded words, "I have to go POTTY."  In Japan, it's usually a minor inconvenience instead of an impending disaster. We simply get off at the next station, swing through the public restroom, and hop back on the next train.  Easy! In many of these bathrooms, the cleaning person has even decorated the sink area with a small vase of fresh flowers.  So civilized.

Sometimes, there is a problem.  This is a problem usually found at more remote public restrooms- those at shrines and temples, or in public parks. These kinds of bathrooms don't have any posted, stick figure man or stick figure woman to clue me in- which is the girls' bathroom?!

My local park's public restroom.  This sign is not helping me.

The above photo shows the gender indicator for one half of this public restroom.  You see the difficulty.  The label on the other half of the restroom was no help, either.  In places with old bathrooms or with a low foreigner presence, these kinds of bathroom signs tend to pop up.  Normally, I just wait until someone of obvious gender walks into one of the entrances.  But what about when there is no one...ummm...patronizing the potty, and I have a Little TF who very much needs to go?

The other half of my local park's public restroom. Equally mystifying.

It's time for a kanji lesson!  Stay with me. The kanji that indicate gender are very easy to remember.  We just need a little bit of visual aid!  Please excuse my drawing skills.  I have a degree in Studio Art; but, when it comes to magic markers, I am a total lost cause.

The first, red line shows how I remember the kanji for "woman."  Kanji, at its most basic (I am criminally simplifying the Japanese writing system, here), is picture writing.  So when trying to learn new kanji, I sometimes find it helpful to create a little picture, to help it stick in my mind.  This one is fairly self-explanatory.  I just made a stick-figure woman even more stick-figured!  

Top line: Woman.  Bottom line: Man.  See?  This is not too hard! 

The second, green line shows how I remember the kanji for "man."  It is composed of two parts.  The first part of the full kanji character, on the top right of the green line, is also the complete kanji for "rice field."  It requires little explanation, right? It's simply a rice field sectioned into four grids.  The second element, on the bottom right, is the kanji for "power."  I make it stick in my mind by imagining it as a powerful, punching fist.  So, in my mind, the complete kanji for "man" is composed of the difficult labor in the rice fields and a powerful, striking fist, all of which come more easily to a man (Disclaimer:  this is gross gender stereotyping, but one must appropriate memory aides wherever one can find them. And make sure they exist only as memory aides.)

There you go!  You now know two kanji!  A bit of memorization and you will be able to confidently make a beeline for the correct, kanji-labeled bathroom!

Note: The full kanji sequence for Man or Woman is actually composed of two characters.  For our purposes here, learning only the first character of the sequence will suffice and keep you out of incorrect bathrooms. Whew!

A Japanese toilet's high-tech control panel. The flush button is one of these!

The second, equally tricky bathroom situation is found in many department store, museum, or restaurant bathrooms.  The flush function, if not automatic, is usually located on this complicated, button-filled control panel.  A quick scan, almost always after Little TF has emptied her bowels, reveals zero English.  Panic sets in.  Leave a giant poop in the potty, only to be discovered by the next person in line? That will only confirm all Foreigners Are Disgusting stereotypes!  How do I get this %&*# toilet to flush?

Kanji Lesson #2:  The kanji for "great" and the kanji for "small."

The kanji for great (large, big) is one of the most important kanji in the Japanese language. It's one of the first kanji studied by schoolchildren; and, since it shows up everywhere, you'll soon become adept at recognizing it.  I remember it by simply drawing a big stick figure with outstretched arms.  Ta da!  You now know another kanji!

The kanji for small is equally easy.  I just draw a stick figure, with its legs pressed together, trying to make itself smaller. See?  Also easy!

The kanji for great and small are relevant here, because many Japanese toilets have two flushes- one large, one small.  The small one is a water-saving flush, and is to be used when...ahem...there isn't much to flush.  When to use the large flush should be self-explanatory.

Let's take another look at the Control Panel.  See where the kanji for great and small are?

There they are, right on the top!  You can now flush that fancy, Japanese toilet with confidence and efficiency! Leave the stall with the smug knowledge that the chic woman (or man, depending on which bathroom you're in) waiting her turn won't be horrified by any gauche, foreigner bathroom etiquette.  Good thing you read this blog!


-The Tofu Fox

Disclaimer:  I do my best to make sure all my information is accurate.  However, details may change or I may just be flat-out wrong.  Please let me know if something needs a correction.  Thank-you!


  1. Mad stick figure skills!

  2. Thanks! I knew I got that degree for a reason!

  3. good thing we read this blog, indeed!

  4. Seems so simple. But we just got off the plane (as in yesterday... during the typhoon... with a 5, 3 and 3 mo old after being homeless and in transit for the past 2 1/2 months with time spent in RI, NY, NJ, Germany, and England and therefor flying East and making the time change from the states that much more brutal) and I have to admit that, even though we are very experienced travelers (partly responsible for the 2 1/2 months of transit time), I have been feeling completely overwhelmed and out of my element. I can't tell you how empowered this post made me feel in that I can at least figure out what bathroom to use and how to flush. Does that seem crazy?! But it's always the little things that make a difference. Thank you!!!!

  5. That flight is truly a small journey into hell. I am sorry you had to suffer through it with three children AND a typhoon! But welcome to Japan and I hope you love it here! =)