History and Design of the Bathroom Part 6: Learning from the Japanese


Onna yu ("Bathhouse Women") by Torii Kiyonaga

Siegfried Giedion, in Mechanization Takes Command, writes:

The bath and its purpose have held different meanings for different ages. The manner in which a civilization integrates bathing within its life, as well as the type of bathing it prefers, yields searching insight into the inner nature of the period....The role that bathing plays within a culture reveals the culture's attitude toward human relaxation. It is a measure of how far individual well-being is regarded as an indispensable part of community life.

I have described how in the western world, the disparate functions that take place in the modern bathroom used to be separate, but courtesy of the engineers and plumbers, all ended up in one room because it was cheap and convenient, not because it was healthy or right.

In Japan, this didn't happen. They have been taking bathing seriously for over a thousand years, starting as a religious ritual and becoming a social one. Because human waste was so valuable as fertilizer until the development of the Haber-Bosch invention of artificial fertilizer, the toilet didn't come inside until well into the 20th century. When it did, they kept it in its own room, as bathing was social and regenerative, while using the toilet is private. Also, until after WWII, the Japanese used squat toilets, which are a lot smellier. Nobody would think of mixing the two functions.

But there are other good reasons to separate the toilet in its own room; it is more sanitary. In my post for LifeEdited, Re-Thinking the Bathroom: Who Needs It? I noted that toilets put out a lot of bacteria when they are flushed, which settles everywhere, including your toothbrush. According to Dental Health Magazine,

Scientists have found more than 10,000,000 bacteria living on a single toothbrush. This huge number does not vary a lot. Now think how dangerous becomes the everyday procedure of 'cleaning' your teeth if not to take the right care about your dental toothbrush. Millions of bacteria infects the oral cavity and can badly infect your damaged gums, too.

The main reason of all this is considered the wrong bathroom design, easily met in many today houses. The restroom and the bathroom are usually situated in the same area. When you flush the toilet many water droplets are expelled from the toilet bowl into the air and affect toothbrush.


So how might one combine the best of Japan's bathing ideas with American housing? Perhaps like this terrible sketchup drawing I have done. You enter in the middle, in what in Japan would be called the Datsuiba, or changing room. Bruce Smith and Yoshiko Yamomoto describe it as

a comfortable space for taking off one's clothes and for drying off and putting on fresh clothes after the bath. it is a transition space between the watery world of the bath and the dry world of the house.

To the right I have drawn a room for the toilet. To the left is the bath, with the shower separate from the tub. In my post Save Water; Shower Japanese Style I described the process of showering before bathing:

To clean yourself before you got into the bath water, you did not use a conventional shower, but sit on a stool with a wooden bucket and ladle, soap and a sponge, and in the more modern showers, a hand shower that was is used when needed for rinsing and never left on to run into the drain. Sitting while you shower is safer and I found a lot more relaxing; having no water running meant that I could take as long as I wanted.

No doubt readers are going to complain that this takes up too much space, being 14' long compared to a standard American bathroom at 8' long. But how many bathrooms do most American apartments or houses have? In this bathroom, three people can be doing different things at once. If a bathroom is eliminated, this design would actually save money and space.

Next: Part 7: Going off-pipe.
The History of the Bathroom Part 1: Before the Flush
The History of the Bathroom Part 2: Awash In Water and Waste
The History of the Bathroom Part 3: Putting Plumbing Before People
History of the Bathroom Part 4: The Perils of Prefabrication
The History of the Bathroom Part 5: Alexander Kira and Designing For People, Not Plumbing

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Tags: Japan | Toilets