Project Management Institute

Flush With Pride

Tokyo is changing the perception of public restrooms

the Edge

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PHOTOS COURTESY OF NIPPON FOUNDATION

Tokyo, Japan had a toilet problem. The city’s existing public restrooms tended to be “dirty, dark and sometimes broken,” says Hayato Hanaoka, program director, Nippon Foundation. And they weren’t fully accessible for people with disabilities or those who wanted to use gender-neutral facilities.

As late as 2016, roughly 40 percent still featured squat stalls, according to a government survey. Between 2017 and 2019, the government refurbished more than 300 public restrooms.

In advance of hosting the next Olympic Games (pushed back to 2021 because of the global pandemic), the nonprofit Nippon Foundation took refurbishment one step further: It launched the Tokyo Toilet Project in the city’s Shibuya ward, one of its busiest districts.

Establishing requirements for the 17 public facilities was straightforward: Each project site has to comply with local building standards, must have at least one stall that anyone can use and be fully accessible. And every designer must consult with toilet maker Toto on the restroom’s layout and facilities. The team opted to elevate the design, collaborating with 16 high-profile architects, including Shigeru Ban, Toyo Ito, Tadao Ando and Fumihiko Maki.

By August, six of the facilities had opened to the public, with the remaining slated to be completed by mid-2021. The team has launched a website and is planning a future campaign to educate residents about the restrooms and foster greater buy-in for maintaining them.

“Most local people whom I’ve talked to don’t think of these as their toilets,” says Hanaoka. “They think the toilets are for someone else or managed by the local government. So we need to educate them and communicate with them.” The hope, he says, is that long after the games are gone, the public toilets will continue to be a point of pride.

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—Hayato Hanaoka, Nippon Foundation, Tokyo, Japan

Safety See-Through

Two fears traditionally plague public restrooms located in parks, according to architect Shigeru Ban’s firm: cleanliness and the prospect of someone already inside. To reassure users on both fronts, the architecture firm designed two public stations with transparent walls made from colorful smart glass that becomes opaque when someone enters and locks a door. The facilities opened in Yoyogi Fukamachi Mini Park and Haru-no-Ogawa Community Park in August.

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Under the Sea

Ebisu East Park is often called Octopus Park by locals, because of its themed playground equipment. In a clever nod to the local landscape, architect Fumihiko Maki dubbed his project “Squid Toilet.” The undulating roof is designed to help the structure replicate the look of playground equipment. But it also promotes better ventilation and natural light, making it more inviting for children.

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Trio of Privacy

Assigned a narrow, triangular project site along the ward’s railroad tracks, architect Nao Tamura drew inspiration from origata, a traditional Japanese method of decorative wrapping, which the architect calls “a symbol of gift-giving” that “embodies the spirit of hospitality towards Shibuya ward’s multinational visitors.” She put a particular focus on the LGBTQ+ community, designing slanted, elongated entrances that promote privacy while taking advantage of the site’s irregular shape.

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Modern Throwback

The origin of public toilets can be traced all the way to kawaya, or a simple, communal hut constructed over a river. Architect Masamichi Katayama’s firm drew upon that history with the Modern Kawaya toilet in Ebisu Park. The design features 15 interlocking concrete walls placed seemingly at random, which creates a “whimsical, maze-like entrance,” the firm says. Nestled inside the structure are three separate toilet areas, for men, women and everyone.

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