All-Gender Restrooms in Tokyo: Giving Users More Options

When you visit a public facility in Tokyo, you might come across something new: all-gender restrooms, increasingly common sight around the metropolitan area. We sat down with Toyo University Professor Emeritus Takahashi Gihei to learn more about the emerging trend.
Takahashi Gihei says that "All Gender" signage abroad frequently features pictograms with half-female/half-male, male, and female figures. Photo: iStock

The Need for All-Gender Restrooms

Some members of sexual and gender minorities feel uncomfortable about restrooms with specific gender assignments and prefer instead to use multifunctional restrooms, which are free for anyone to use. One problem, though, is that multifunctional restrooms are relatively few in number; originally designed with wheelchair-accessible toilets, facilities for ostomates (people with stomas), and diaper-changing tables, they are simply too large and complex to build in the same quantity as gendered restrooms. As the number of people looking to use multifunctional toilets goes up, there are increasing numbers of cases where wheelchair users and others with special needs find themselves having to wait longer to access the restrooms that offer them the space and features they rely on.

The Research Group on Restrooms for All-Gender Use, a collaborative project uniting LIXIL Corporation, Kanazawa University, and Comany Inc., found in a June 2023 survey that over 50% of transgender respondents preferred to use gendered restrooms, while over 40% indicated a preference for multifunctional or non-gendered restrooms. In the effort to create environments that enable individuals to use the restroom of their choice, there is clearly a need to install all-gender restrooms as an option separate from multifunctional restrooms.

How the Tokyo 2020 Games Sparked Change

The Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 played a crucial role in driving the emergence of all-gender restrooms around the metropolitan area.

According to Outsports, a sports news website with a focus on LGBTQ athletes, the Olympic and Paralympic Games Rio 2016 saw a significant increase in the number of LGBTQ+ athletes—and that number proceeded to triple at the Tokyo 2020 Games. Takahashi, a leader in the field of barrier-free design and the JAPAN SPORT COUNCIL's universal-design adviser for the construction of the Japan National Stadium, says that "with how the picture was changing, the construction projects for the Olympic venues in Tokyo made diversity and inclusiveness a focus."

And that focus was evident, indeed. The Japan National Stadium, which served as the main stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Games, was just the beginning. Venues like Ariake Arena, Tokyo Aquatics Centre, and Ariake Tennis Park were home to both exciting sports action and new all-gender restrooms, installed for permanent use.

Pictograms: The Easier to Understand, the Better

The signage for all-gender restrooms at Ariake Arena. Photo: courtesy of Takahashi Gihei

Part of the process of installing an all-gender restroom is dealing with the signage question: what kind of pictograms the restrooms should use.

"There's always a chance that people won't like the design or the coloring of a pictogram, whether it's a gendered restroom or an all-gender restroom," Takahashi says. For example, most of the pictograms for traditional gendered restrooms in Japan feature a blue male figure wearing pants and a red female figure in a skirt. That type of design has its detractors, though, who say that the representations are stereotypes and go against the contemporary embrace of diversity.

At Ariake Arena's all-gender restrooms, the pictogram depicts male and female figures without a center line. The design was chosen by a Foundation for Promoting Personal Mobility and Ecological Transportation committee, which Takahashi chaired, and has served as the Japanese Industrial Standard (JIS) since May 2020.

"Making restroom signage easy to understand comes first; I think intuitiveness has to take priority over the other visual elements. Of all the different signage in use abroad, I've almost never come across something that would confuse people—and I think the restroom pictograms in Japan get their intended meanings across universally, too."

At the Design Museum in London, the pictograms appear on not only the entrances to restrooms but also doors to individual stalls. Photo: courtesy of Takahashi Gihei

Finding the Right Design for Everyone

All-gender restrooms are a growing global trend. In Sweden, for example, all-gender restrooms are places that anyone—including sexual and gender minorities—should be able to use, and they continue to enter the mainstream. Taiwan is another place where all-gender restrooms are gaining traction, with the government recognizing same-sex marriage and continuing to accelerate gender equality.

In Japan, some organizations are moving to give people more restroom options so that a wider diversity of people can feel comfortable using the facilities. One example is International Christian University, which installed all-gender restrooms in its main building in 2020 to complement the existing gendered restrooms.

"The important thing is to keep experimenting with approaches," Takahashi says, "and figure out what kind of restroom design would give users comfortable, stress-free experiences in a way that aligns with intended use of the facility, the location, and user needs."

There are plenty of issues to navigate; discussions will have to take the full range of users, including people who prefer all-gender restrooms and those who like the conventional gendered type, into consideration. But whatever the challenges might be, hopes are high that Japan and Tokyo will offer more and more restrooms that everyone will feel comfortable using.

Takahashi Gihei

A professor emeritus at Toyo University, Takahashi Gihei specializes in architectural planning, barrier-free design, and universal design. He currently chairs the Council for the Promotion of Urban Planning for Welfare, overseen by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's Bureau of Social Welfare.
Photo: courtesy of Takahashi Gihei
Interview and writing by Onodera Fukumi
Translation by Tom Kain