Quadrilingual Washlet Instructions

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Half an hour before touchdown at Narita, the pilot turns on the "fasten seat belt" sign.  Because something (or some things) served during the in-flight meals on the 14-hour flight did not quite agree with your alimentary tract, you are already experiencing ominous rumblings down in your bowels.

You do your best to ignore the bouncing and jolting of the huge 747 as it descends through the various layers of stormy clouds.  Breathing deeply and slowly, you focus all of your thoughts on the first toilet you will encounter when you enter the terminal.

Finally, the plane screeches to a halt, then slowly, ever so slowly and with many pauses and turns, it taxis to the gate.  Since you know that you will have a major evacuation and it may take some time,  you  deplane along with everyone else.  But, horrors!  You are guided down lengthy hallways and escalators, then stand in line to wait for a bus that will take you to another part of the terminal to go through immigration.  After arriving at the immigration hall, you stand in line, alternating between doing a jig and exercising maximum sphincter control.  At last you pass through immigration and customs, then race to the nearest toilet you can find, open the door, dash to he only unoccupied stall you can find, enter, and come face to face with THIS.

What to do?  Which button(s) to push?  You can't even spot which language to read for any given instruction.  There's no help for it but just to sit down, do your business, and read all the instructions later, hoping that such rashness will not lead to a major calamity in the WC.

In case you couldn't guess from the coinage, a "washlet" is a toilet that also washes your bottom and does all sorts of other fun things to make you feel nice and clean.  The Japanese invented washlets and have become increasingly dependent upon them.

Here are a couple of videos that demonstrate how they work.

The star of the second video is W. Hodding Carter IV (son, grandson, and great-grandson of other distinguished Hodding Carters).

He's also the author of Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization.

As someone who learned to like Japanese squat toilets back in the 70s (see paragraph 5 here), I must say that I was quite intimidated the first time I encountered a top-of-the-line washlet.  But once you get used to them, you can't do without them.  I'm pretty sure that's why Mr. W. Hodding Carter IV had one installed in his house up in Maine.

My thanks to Miki Morita for sending me the photograph of the instructions.


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    I first encountered one of these devices in an Osaka hotel room in the late 1980s. After a long flight from Newark to Tokyo, and a train ride to Osaka, I arrived at the hotel just in time to change clothes, splash some water on my face, and head out to a meeting downtown. At the last minute, I decided to empty my bladder — and then I faced with the question of how to flush. Was it the large red button, or the slightly smaller green button? or maybe the gray one?

    There were no instructions in any language, just short Japanese labels next to the buttons. The big red button seemed to be the most likely choice, so I pressed it. A thin stream of fluid jetted out of the rear of the toilet and struck me just above the belt. I dodged out of the way, and pressed the red button again. No change. So I pressed the green button. A thin stream of fluid jetted out of the front of the toilet, arcing towards the wall. At this point, I had the presence of mind to close the lid, trapping both fluid streams within the unit.

    But I still needed to flush. So I tried the remaining button. A whoosh of warm air blew the lid open again. I quickly pushed it shut, but slipped in the puddle of dispensed fluids, and ended up sitting on the floor holding the lid down, from which vantage point I could see the old-fashioned flush handle on the original commode, on top of which this marvelous electromechanical throne had been retrofitted. At this point, the washlet's various functions came to their natural end, and I was able to go on my way. After changing clothes again, of course.

  2. Michiko said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 11:39 am

    That's a pretty whacked translation, but quite common here in Japan.

    Particularly noteworthy is 音姫 (otohime), which is rendered as "Flushing Sound" with a music symbol next to it. Literally "sound princess", this feature is popular with women. When pressed, it will make a flushing sound so as to mask and foul sounds made when excreting and flatulating. You wouldn't want anyone nearby to hear such unpleasant sounds. On the other hand, it draws more attention to you and your business when one can hear the fake flushing sound continue for several minutes from outside.

  3. Linda said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    "Washing the rear" points to both "Spray" and "Bidet", with different diagrams, but how do they differ in practical terms?

  4. NW said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    I love the way they don't quite get English toilet registers – if you're going to be so coy about it you're not going to say 'buttocks' or 'toilet sound', are you? Not in English.

  5. Randy Alexander said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

    @NW: "English toilet registers". Amazing. (And unique according to Google.)

    And back on topic:

    C'mon, everybody! More washlet confessions! (Of course with linguistic aspects.)

  6. Nathan Myers said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    Of course Google has these things in their restrooms. How could they not?

  7. Bob Lieblich said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    Washlets are available for sale in the US. When Mrs. Bob and I replaced the ancient toilets in our residence, we examined some catalogs and discovered washlets. Indeed, that was my only contact with the concept prior to this thread. The washlets I saw were add-ons to the basic commode with seat. For those of you dying to get one, the only manufacturer's name I can remember is Toto. We're not in Kansas anymore.

    Mrs. Bob and I decided to do without. I can't vouch for her, but the whole idea makes me nervous. Mark has confirmed that I was quite right to be so.

    Not much about language, I guess, except to observe, at the risk of stating the obvious, that "washlet" is a portmanteau.

  8. Rubrick said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    I've experienced and enjoyed these for years during various trips to Japan (and, more recently, Google headquarters— that place rocks!), but had never heard the term "washlet". Useful.

  9. Doc Rock said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    Mon Dieu! No Française? Quel dommage!

  10. Stephen Jones said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    In the Middle East and India it's much better. You have a tube with a showerhead coming from the wall, and use that to clean your butt.

    What really annoys me is that one of the poshest pubs in Colombo doesn't have one, just toilet paper instead. Western barbarians.

  11. Dan T. said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

    Hmmm…. I remember from my time a couple of years ago flying into Heathrow Airport in London that it had a maze of twisty little passages, all different, between the gate where the plane arrived and the parts of the terminal where you could exit or get onto the Underground (Tube), but they were nice enough to have a toilet (the British don't go for euphemisms like "restroom" or "lavatory") right near the gate so you could use it before you navigated all of that. It was a plain, ordinary toilet, though, not some fancy-featured thing.

  12. John Cowan said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

    Linda: Almost certainly in the angle, which affects precisely which bodily organ gets washed. I'd conjecture that "Bidet" washes the front, and "Spray" the back.

  13. John Cowan said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

    Oh, and Google Japan or even Google's Mountain View offices (the "Googleplex", as they call it) may well have washlets, but I'm here to testify that Google's New York offices (my place of employment these days) most certainly do not.

  14. Toby said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 3:17 am

    Stephen Jones:
    That arrangement is also common in Brazil. It does make toilet paper look primitive. :)

  15. Graeme said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    Is it true 'bidet' traces to Fr for 'pony', as in one rides a bidet?

    Trust Japanese ingenuity to collapse bidet and toilet into one.
    (After more long haul conference flights than I care to remember, I discovered the simple Arabic equivalent – hose on wall – in Brunei. When we used cloth nappied with our first born, I snuck a 'little squirt' into
    the plumbing. Voilà, a manual bidet in perpetuity.)

  16. misterfricative said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 9:14 am

    Ah! So many of my favorite things. Language, toilets, robots, GUIs, ergonomics, bottoms… There's no way I'm not commenting on this thread!

    @Dan T: I recently had a toilet experience at Heathrow too. On the long trek to the gate, a purpose-built room with a single disabled toilet was the only option available. All was well until I needed to flush. I was confronted with two buttons set in a brushed stainless steel panel with cryptic, stylized, faintly etched, 'explanatory' icons. I figured one of them must be the flush – but that the other must be some kind of emergency call-for-assistance. Anywhere else and I would have taken my best shot, but this being an airport, I didn't want to end up on the no-fly list for raising a false alarm. Had it been a number two, I might have chanced it, but as it was, I slunk off without flushing. True story.

    This is a serious problem though. I mean, this was just a straightforward (ie servo-operated, computer controlled) flush. God help us if Heathrow ever installs those musical, bottom-washing, compressed air, robot-arm thingies. It's enough to make a chap want to urinate in the sink.

    In any case, as other posters have already suggested, for butt-cleaning operations the best solution is a manually operated showerhead on a hose. This is definitely the way to go. As long as your bathroom isn't carpeted. And your water temperature is stable.

    @Bob Lieblich: Of course you're right about 'washlet' being a portmanteau, but actually it wasn't obvious to me. I took it for a diminutive; a 'little wash'. I think I'd better start spending less time at cuteoverload.

  17. Ellen said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    How is washlet a portmanteau? Where does the L come from?

  18. Zwicky Arnold said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    Ellen: "How is washlet a portmanteau? Where does the L come from?"

    From toilet. A washlet is a washing toilet.

  19. Chad Nilep said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    When I lived in Japan the first time, in the 1990s, I had an "old fashioned" squat toilet in my apartment, but would sometimes walk down the road to the posh department store to use the full-featured Toto washlet.

    Obligatory language content: The word for the room containing the commode is a classic example for illustrating the typology of Japanese loan words. Japanese words can be divided into wago (Japanese words), kango (words borrowed from varieties of Chinese), and gairaigo (loanwords, excluding Sino-Japanese).

    The room in question is variously called お手洗い (otearai, a wago word), 便所 (benjo, in kango), or トイレ (toire, from French/English toilet).

  20. Dan Scherlis said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 1:55 am

    I can't be the only one who was reminded of the instructions for the Zero Gravity Toilet in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    Or maybe the instructions posted by the head (marine toilet) on many small boats. For a randomly-googled example, read section 6-4.2 of this.

    (My favorite part: the all-caps warning to leave the "lever on head forward of pump handle" in "depressed position" to avoid scuttling the boat.)

  21. mollymooly said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 2:24 am

    observe, at the risk of stating the obvious, that "washlet" is a portmanteau.

    Thank you, this was not obvious to me; it must be too early in the morning. I assumed it was "-let" [diminutive] attached to "wash" [encompassing "poo", "pee"; cf. "washroom"]. Of course the "-et" in "toilet" is a diminutive, but etymology is not transitive.

  22. Philip Spaelti said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 3:36 am

    The claim that the Japanese invented the washing-toilet is not in accordance with the facts. Washing-toilets (marketed under the name "Closomat") were available in the 70s in Europe, well before Toto's introduction of the device in 1980. No question however that the Japanese have taken a special liking to it though.

  23. Graeme said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 4:54 am

    Portmanteau construction? Then I shall call my manual bidet a 'manet'.

  24. misterfricative said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 7:14 am

    @ Graeme: 'Manet' is good, but considering what it consists of, why not call it a 'man-squirt'? That should liven up your Google hits by a few orders of magnitude.

  25. KYL said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 9:17 am


    It's also interesting that they just did a straight borrowing of 音姫 into Chinese as the translation. This is not one of those words whose meaning can be worked out just from the components, and would be quite mysterious to Chinese readers who don't already know the term.

    A while ago I remember reading a LL post noting that Chinese has relatively few foreign loan words. I wonder if that's changing due to the large number of Japanese loanwords in the last century.. This example of 音姫 stands out only because it's new to me, but I bet contemporary Chinese probably has a lot more borrowings from Japanese (as compared to other languages) that already seem "native" by now to Chinese speakers. Folk etymologies can be easily made up for Japanese borrowings where the kanji used are borrowed straight as they are.

  26. Jay Lake: [links] Link salad lights out for Omaha said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    […] Quadrilingual Washlet Instructions — Hah! Longtime readers will recall my extensive toilet misadventures in Japan two years ago. […]

  27. Victor Mair said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    Jay: refresh our memory, please. Give us the URL!

    When Miki sent me the photograph, she reminded that, since this in the terminal at Narita Airport, it is probably the first thing that enables foreign tourists to "feel" Japan.

  28. Portmanteaus « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    […] AZBlog on 8/18: townterview Ben Zimmer on Language Log, 8/22: diavlog Victor Mair on Language Log, 8/22: […]

  29. roscivs said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 12:20 am

    Regarding the "sound princess," it is worth noting that these fake-flushing noise-makers were created because, prior to their invention, female bathroom-goers in Japan would actually continuously flush the toilet while doing their business in order to mask any sounds (either number one or two) emanating from their stall. This, of course, resulted in a huge waste of water–and so the "sound princess" was born.

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