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Owen Hatherley: Postcard from Japan

Owen Hatherley

From temples and Tange to the unsung everyday, it’s the plentiful and pleasant public toilets that make it easy to use and enjoy public spaces in Japan

Big face in a pocket park in Nakano, Tokyo
Big face in a pocket park in Nakano, Tokyo Credit: Owen Hatherley

Given the complaints lamenting the demolition of old Machiya houses and Buddhist temples by the Anglophone sentimentalists who write most of the books you can buy in Waterstones about Japan, you’d imagine its cities all look like Birmingham: that they basically resemble those of Europe and the US. They very much do not, and are bursting full of typologies we don’t really have – the street of ultra-dense single-family detached prefabricated houses; the tile-clad point block rammed into a street corner; the ten-storey retail building with the width of a couple of bays, crammed with god knows what – bars, a toy shops, bookshops, brothels, or just a 10-storey stationery store, usually with a neon sign the size of a couple of floors on top. Though one might admire an Ando or a Tange, it was these ordinary buildings that sent me.

  • Everyday joy in Kichijoji Park, Tokyo
    Everyday joy in Kichijoji Park, Tokyo Credit: Owen Hatherley
  • Public thrones for the Imperial Palace in Kyoto
    Public thrones for the Imperial Palace in Kyoto Credit: Owen Hatherley

But it was the public toilets where I truly felt I was in the presence of a better civilisation. Some are not ‘architecture’ as such – such as those in every single Metro station or those in almost every single convenience store (and never mind the fact that most of them are also electronic, and will play a recording of a flush if you’re shy). But in each public park, no matter how small, you’ll find an excellent stand-alone public toilet, or several. Architecturally, there is a great deal to admire in these. Public toilets might be playful (a big face in a tiny park in Nakano, Tokyo), modernist (the half-dozen individually designed toilets of Kichijoji Park, also in the capital) or traditionalist (the toilets of the Imperial Palace park in Kyoto), but their main virtue is in being absolutely everywhere.

By now, as things get more difficult in Britain, with another wave of austerity, one’s horizon lowers. The commonplace provision in Japan for this most basic human need – systematically ignored in almost every public space in Britain and the USA, and even for the most part in France and Germany – can be enough to reduce you to tears. You’ll note as you walk around Japanese cities that there are a great many children and elderly people on the streets – now you know why. Japan has some of the same problems as everywhere else, but somehow, they have decided that public space exists for people, whose discomfort and embarrassment is to be avoided. It’s not revolutionary perhaps, but by now I would settle for it.