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Toilets in elevators? The new Japanese idea that isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

The Toranomon Hills, center left, and Atago Green Hills, center right, towers both developed by Mori Building, stand illuminated as they are seen from the observation deck of the Tokyo Tower on May 6, 2015.  Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg News
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Japan's infrastructure ministry announced Tuesday that the country's elevators may soon have a surprising new feature, the Kyodo news agency reports: Toilets.

Yes, it sounds odd, but while the idea of a fully plumbed potty zooming up and down the sides of a Tokyo skyscraper may seem like Japanese technical ingenuity taken a step too far, in reality this idea is born of reasonable and sensible practical concerns.

According to Kyodo, the Japanese government called meetings with the country's elevator industry to discuss the idea after a magnitude-8.1 earthquake struck south of Tokyo on Saturday evening, causing about 19,000 elevators in the city and nearby to stop working.

People were trapped in 14 elevators and it took 70 minutes to rescue some of them, officials told Kyodo. If a larger earthquake strikes, the problem could be far, far worse. In light of the practical problems caused by being stuck in an elevator for so long, the Japanese government began looking into installing water and toilet facilities in all elevators.

Earthquakes present a special problem for Japan. The country is located near major tectonic plate boundaries and has a long history of quakes. It also, however, has a very large and constantly growing number of tall buildings. This means that the country has about 620,000 elevators, with 150,000 or so in Tokyo alone.

During big earthquakes, these elevators stop working. An earthquake in 1992 resulted in most elevators in Tokyo stopping; many didn't restart for an entire day. Another earthquake in 2005 left 64,000 elevators paralyzed, according to Cameron Allan McKean of Next City, and some people were stuck for up in elevators for almost nine hours after a quake in 2011.

In response to these incidents, Tokyo created the Japan Elevator Association Kanto Branch (JEA), a body that conducted research that showed thousands of people could be stuck if an earthquake struck (the current figure stands around 17,000). JEA devised a number of methods to try to avoid this, including backup power sources and early warning systems that help people escape elevators if an earthquake strikes.

These technical solutions will never work all of the time, however, and it remains likely that people will end up trapped in elevators if a large earthquake comes. Toilets, drinking water and other amenities would no doubt make those people far more comfortable until they are rescued. In fact, some local governments have begun putting portable toilets in elevators. According to Jiji Press, Tokyo's Chiyoda ward began putting in "water, blankets and emergency boxes that double as toilets" in 2014, with other parts of Tokyo planning to follow this tactic.

Private Japanese companies manufacture devices intended to serve as toilets in elevators. Aqua & Air Technology shows off its product in the video below:

Japan's elevator industry is among the most advanced in the world – Japanese companies engineer some of the world's fastest elevators, for example. Its toilet industry also leads the world in technical advancements. As The Washington Post's Anna Fifield recently explained, upscale Japanese toilets come with features such as "bidet, seat-warmer, sterilizing and deodorizing functions, and electronic flushing."

And while the ingenious idea of a toilet in an elevator may seem particularly Japanese, people get stuck in elevators everywhere. Perhaps this will soon be coming to one near you.

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