The Hiroo East Park public toilet in Tokyo, created by Tomohito Ushiro (all photos by Satoshi Nagare, courtesy the Nippon Foundation)

As the popular children’s book by Taro Gomi and Amanda Mayer Stinchecum teaches us, Everyone Poops. In divisive times, we can at least fall back upon this basic commonality, and a new art initiative in Tokyo is bringing culture to the place where everyone can encounter it: the public restroom. Through the Tokyo Toilet project, the Nippon Foundation is renovating and artistically reimagining public toilets in 17 locations across Shibuya, Tokyo. One of the most recently unveiled restrooms uses video art to emphasize the universality of the structure as well as the uniqueness of anyone who might use it.

The 13th bathroom in the planned series of 17, unveiled last year in Hiroo East Park, was designed by Tomohito Ushiro. For the unconventional structure, Ushiro decorated the concrete cube form of the public toilet with a digital lighting grid that represents humanity through a shifting pattern of 7.9 billion different light formations.

“I will be glad if more people use these toilets without feeling stress,” said Ushiro.

“I wanted this toilet to express the project’s underlying theme of ‘All people are the same, in the sense that they are all different,’” Ushiro said in a statement about his design. “In addition to safety, peace of mind, and cleanliness, I wanted a public toilet that all people would find agreeable. The location in a park, surrounded by greenery in an area where many people live, means that it is also like a piece of public art that is part of people’s daily lives, and is always posing questions.”

These may seem like grand aspirations for a toilet, but despite Japan’s reputation for cleanliness in public spaces, common-use restrooms are not held in favor and are rarely used, according to the Nippon Foundation.

“The use of public toilets in Japan is limited because of stereotypes that they are dark, dirty, smelly, and scary,” reads a brief on the Tokyo Toilet project.

The Tokyo Toilet project restrooms are gender-neutral, accessible, and open to all. The initiative seeks to showcase creative design as a mechanism for an inclusive society, and contributors to the project have included the architects Kengo Kuma and Toyo Ito and creative designer Kashiwa Sato.

Interior view of the Hiroo East Park public toilet, which opened in July of 2022

The 7.9 billion light patterns in Ushiro’s design correspond to the current global population.

“… They change continuously, from sunlight filtering through the trees during the day to wafting in moonlight or a firefly flying about at night,” Ushiro said. “People will never see the same pattern twice.”

The most recent toilet, number 14, opened in January and was created by industrial designer Marc Newson. The structure, tucked under a rail overpass, features an under-lit pitched copper roof, the shape of which mirrors a traditional design for shrines, temples, and tearooms, lending the structure a feeling of familiarity and trust.

The Tomohito Ushiro-designed bathroom is the 13th in a series of 17 bathroom renovations.
There appear to be 7.9 billion lighting patterns, the same as the world’s population.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

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