Over the years I’ve shown enough preoccupation with toilets that it should probably become a separate keyword, right up there with “historic preservation” and “adaptive reuse”. But it’s kind of embarrassing to elevate loos to the same level as genuine urban revitalization strategies. Still, it’s hard to deny the cultural importance that restrooms have; they are among the greatest harbinger of advanced civilization. It is nigh impossible to find a country one would call “developed” that hasn’t perfected a means of human waste removal. It’s basically a prerequisite. Proper wastewater management is the greatest safeguard against a variety of diseases that have all but been eradicated in the First World; one might safely complete a reflexive syllogism by asserting that the countries are First World because they manage waste well. It’s basically a prerequisite. To paraphrase my old economics professor (who taught Housing in Developing Countries): “You just have to figure out where the shit will flow.” And a well-maintained restroom isn’t just a coveted feature in commercial properties. Outdated, aged bathrooms can reduce the value of a private residence many tens of thousands of dollars. On a per-square-foot basis, a full bathroom is among the most expensive rooms in a house—far more than a dining room, living room, or bedroom—thanks to all that plumbing, the concentrated lighting, the ventilation, those plug outlets.
So it should come as no surprise that a restroom in a fairly remote National Park is a godsend. Especially when the park is huge, as US National Parks tend to be. Canyonlands in southeast Utah is over 500 square miles, about half the size of Rhode Island. The number of restrooms in this swathe of land is a little bit less than one might find in either of the two halves of the cheery little New England Ocean State. Only nine facilities scattered through this immense national wonder. Given their scarcity in this otherwise uninhabited puzzle piece on a map of Utah, it should come as no surprise that none outside of the visitor center are flush toilets. They are large, permanent structures with an underground septic repository for waste. Hardened Port-o-potties. On the other hand, it was a bit surprising for me to see this at the entrance to one:
The sign on the right indicates exactly what it looks like: Canyonlands features squat toilets. These are extremely rare in the US. I’d wager that this might be the first time I’ve seen them here, though I suspect at least a few other National Park Service sites offer them.
But what is the appeal of squat toilets, and why are they so rare in some parts of the world? It probably has more to do with cultural taboos and consequent associations. Often nicknamed Turkish Toilets or Indian Toilets, they typically consist of a pan at floor level, often with treads on either sides to prevent slipping. And yes, the best posture is exactly as seen on the basic sign outside the restrooms at Canyonlands.
They are more common in the developing world, which may lead to the stereotype of being primitive. Such a generalization is unfair. They involve less hardware than sitting porcelain toilets (at least if measured by volume), though, at least when indoors and connected to a wastewater system, they operate using largely the same flush mechanism. The position is more natural and significantly reduces the risk of hemorrhoids. They are easier to clean (a mop or even a hose will suffice), and because the skin does not come in contact with any part of the toilet itself, the perception holds in many countries that they are more sanitary.
This perception isn’t necessarily true; porcelain toilet seats in public restrooms may arouse revulsion (especially among the sex that tends to need them more often), but, as Allison Janse noted, people don’t get sick from germs on their derriere; “you’re going to get [germs] from your hands.” Besides, squat toilets often require the, um, stuff to fall a greater distance from its, um, source, increasing the risk of splashback or getting some gunk on the pants. And the squatting position is often difficult or impossible for the elderly or persons with disabilities; I’m trying to conceptualize how an ADA-compatible squat toilet would work, and I can’t think of anything.
As a result, the seated toilet is likely the emerging victor in the culture wars. Forty years ago, more than half the world’s toilets were squat, and even many fully developed countries preferred them. Most houses beyond a certain age in Japan feature them. Squat toilets are also fairly common in southern European countries (Italy, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, parts of France), where they accompany bidets as part of the preferred practice for powdering one’s nose. Italians value bidets so much that they are part of the building codes; it is illegal for a home to include a bathroom without one. Squat toilets and bidets aren’t a universal pairing, however; if they were, an ignorant North American tourist (who is often unfamiliar with both) may try to drop a deuce in a bidet. Oops. That said, squat toilets remain a preferred practice in many Muslim countries, though less so than in the past, especially those Muslim countries that are either popular with tourists or strive to become centers of global commerce to match their oil wealth. In fact, the name “Turkish toilet” is increasingly archaic; I don’t remember seeing many squat toilets at all (perhaps none?) during my admittedly limited time there, and I’d imagine few new homes feature them. And while India is less developed than Turkey, it would be inconceivable for a modern hotel in Delhi to use squat toilets.
And what about Japan? When I was interviewing to teach English in Japan in the early 2000s, I recall instructors warning us that squat toilets in homes may be one of the greater culture shocks for Americans. But times are changing. As recently as 2016, more than half of the toilets in Japanese public schools were of the squat variety. But parents don’t want them anymore: most Japanese homes use seated “Western” toilets, and today’s Japanese children are unlikely to receive toilet training from the squat style. I suspect Western toilets have also exploded in popularity (bad idiom choice I know) in Japan because it has one of the highest elderly populations in the world, and squatting is not always easy on ninety-year-old knees. But, like with many other household gizmos, Japanese have taken to the seated toilet like a fish to water (an even worse analogy), so that the Japanese toilet manufacturer Toto offers such decadent features as a built-in deodorizer, seat warmers, hands-free (auto open and close), remote controls, and so forth. The ultra-wealthy of the US have begun to drool over these defecatory Nipponese amenities, and now Toto USA includes such options with price tags up to $20K.
Which can only lead us back to the humble squat toilets of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. If these restroom facilities are old, they certainly don’t look it. Renovations must have been recent. But why, amidst the Beehive State’s countless geologic spectacles, did the National Park Service—“America’s best idea”—choose to add a toilet style of diminishing global popularity at this stage in the game?
Why run the risk of such a defecatory upheaval? It could be because they’re easier to clean. But, of course, as the signage indicates, the NPS installed conventional seated toilets right next to them. I can only assume this was an effort to accommodate the global tourists who come in the millions most years—coronavirus notwithstanding—to gaze upon American natural wonders and want something a little more familiar. I noted at the beginning of this article that other NPS sites beyond Canyonlands probably feature squat toilets as well. It may become the next thing. After all, six years ago I observed a novel drinking fountain combined with a bottle-oriented water refiller that tallied how many plastic bottles were reduced. It was at Badlands National Park. Now they’re everywhere.
Will squat toilets be the next big thing? A growing number of wellness-oriented videos extol the benefits of squatting. And bidets, while rare in North America, are not declining in visibility. Before long, the Japanese brand Toto will probably install toilets with hydraulic lifts that allow us, much like our height-adjustable desks, to raise and lower the toilet basin depending on whether you’re a sitter or squatter. Let’s not give them any ideas.