As population numbers go down in Japan, demand for toilet paper goes up

Shoko Sato shows a shelf in a restroom at her home in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo. More than half of the space is taken up by stockpiled toilet paper.
PHOTO: The Japan News/ANN

We use toilet paper every day, whether at home, work or school. In recent years, there has been an upward trend in sales of this bathroom necessity. This comes despite the fact that the nation's population peaked in 2008 and has been on the decline since 2011.

So why is toilet paper use going up when the number of people using it is supposedly going down?

The nation's population last year was 127 million, 1 million less than the peak figure in 2008. But the number of toilet rolls sold in fiscal 2014 was about 5 billion, compared to the 2008 figure of about 4.5 billion.

Moreover, last year saw an increased pullback in consumer spending following the consumption tax hike, so sales of toilet rolls this fiscal year are expected to rise even more.

"Growing demand for stockpiles is a likely cause," said a spokesperson in charge of analysing sales volumes at Daio Paper Corp., one of the industry's largest companies.

The company estimates that the number of toilet rolls sold for future use in the second half of fiscal 2010 was 6.38 million packs, while the figure rose to 9 million packs in the second half of fiscal 2014.

This recent trend began following the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. Shortly after the disaster, toilet paper temporarily vanished from store shelves - even in Tokyo.

Such an experience led the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry and other organisations to recommend that households stock one month's supply of toilet paper. For a family of four, this would be equivalent to about 15 rolls each 60 meters in length.

Shoko Sato, a 59-year-old housewife in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward, stocks about 30 coreless 130-meter toilet paper rolls.

"They don't go bad, so knowing that we have them on hand is a relief," she said. With more and more public facilities and business establishments also starting to stockpile toilet rolls, sales are expected to continue to grow.

Added-value products

Another contributor is the spread of "added-value toilet paper," which come in different colors and scents.

In fiscal 2008, added-value toilet paper accounted for 20 per cent of the domestic market, whereas in fiscal 2014 this rose to 25 per cent. Many types of added-value toilet paper are double- or triple-ply, which are softer on the skin.

While a single-ply toilet paper roll is usually 50 to 60 meters in length, a double-ply product is 25 to 30 meters, meaning the consumption rate is faster.

A survey by Daio found that the number of people who use the drying function of their electric toilets and do not use toilet paper at all was zero. It appears that post-use actions such as wiping off drops of water make paper-saving measures rather difficult. Highly absorbent toilet paper designed for such uses is now on the market and selling well.

Rise of foreign visitors

The rise of tourists from overseas in recent years is also seen as a factor.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organisation, the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan more than doubled from about 6.14 million in 2004 to about 13.41 million in 2014. As more people visit the country, there will naturally be a rise in the overall number of trips to the bathroom.

Nowadays, toilets at train stations and parks that provide toilet paper are the norm. There are a total of 647 toilets in Tokyo's metropolitan parks. According to the metropolitan government, toilet paper was provided at some park toilets in the 1990s until eventually being provided at nearly all of them. East Japan Railway Co. also provides toilet paper at all of its station toilets. Providing toilet paper at public facilities seems also to have helped boost sales.

"[The trend] is rooted in the national character of Japanese who desire cleanliness above all else as they live in a high-humidity climate," said Kokugakuin University Prof. Takanori Shintani, an expert in folklore. "The notion that 'thrift is a virtue' has worn off, which may also be a contributing factor.

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