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The Tokyo Toilet: a social renewal project

The Tokyo Toilet tackles the unsanitary state of public toilets in the Japanese capital by renovating 17 of them in the Shibuya district. Designed by great names in Japanese architecture and design, these public toilets are also an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of keeping these places clean and accessible to others.

Begun in August 2020 with the renovation of a first public toilet, The Tokyo Toilet project is expected to reach completion soon. While 14 of these are now complete, all 17 of the project’s constituent public toilets are expected to be completed in the coming months.

Ebisu, design : Masamichi Katayama, The Tokyo Toilet project

These renovations are the initiative of the Japanese NGO specialized in social innovation, The Nippon Foundation, in collaboration with the Shibuya district, one of the 23 districts of the capital Tokyo. For the occasion, the NGO entrusted the design of these public toilets to 16 world-renowned architects and designers, including Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban, Fumihiko Maki, Toyo Ito, all four Pritzker Prize winners. Almost entirely free in their design, they had to offer a universal sanitary space that could be used by everyone. Thus, each of the proposed projects offers a different sanitary experience depending on the location: the toilets act as lanterns in dimly lit areas and illuminate the surroundings, while in parks they display sculptural lines, for example.

Nishihara Itchome, design : Takenosuke Sakakura, The Tokyo Toilet project

Fostering the spirit of hospitality


The Tokyo Toilet is like a social experiment in its desire to promote an inclusive society, where public toilets are accessible to all, regardless of age, gender or disability. This includes fostering the spirit of hospitality, an extremely important concept in Japan. Indeed, toilets are considered as a mirror of the society. This means reinforced cleaning protocols and impeccable behavior to ensure a clean space for the next user.

Yoyogi-Fukamachi, design: Shigeru Ban, The Tokyo Toilets project
Nabeshima Shoto, design: Kengo Kuma, The Tokyo Toilets project

In addition to the aesthetic dimension, The Tokyo Toilet project emphasizes the maintenance and upkeep of these public sanitary spaces. Each of them is cleaned three times a day, inspected monthly by a dedicated agent, and undergoes a thorough annual wash of its exterior walls, light fixtures and fans.

Yoyogi Hachiman, design : Toyo Ito, The Tokyo Toilets project

In an effort to raise awareness among the youngest populations, practical cleaning workshops were set up for children, to help them understand the importance of public facilities and to encourage them to be civic-minded. The image of maintenance workers is also being revived among teenagers through the use of overalls: the uniform is being made trendy thanks to Nigo, artistic director at Kenzo, who was asked to design it.

Higashi Sanchome, design : Nao Tamura, The Tokyo Toilet project

The four “K “s


The Tokyo Toilet is part of an effort to revamp the image of its public toilets, nicknamed the Four Ks, which was launched nearly 40 years ago. Indeed, as early as 1985, Professor Nishioka of Keio University and his research group composed of doctors, urban planners and toilet manufacturers were looking for a remedy to these toilets
itanai (“sales”),
usai (“smelly”),
urai (“dark”) and
owai (“scary”), abandoned by the inhabitants, except for a few people like cab drivers. A paradox when one knows the exemplary reputation of Japanese toilets, known worldwide for their cleanliness and functionality.

Rémi de Marassé

Read our special outdoor feature with a portfolio of innovative projects dedicated to public space in issue 215 of Intramuros.