Cannes Lions 2024: The story of the ‘Tokyo Toilet Project, as told by Uniqlo's Koji Yanai

The Tokyo Toilet Project became a beacon of innovation, not just in design and sanitation, but also in its ability to foster human connection and inspire positive change.

Khushi Keswani
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New Delhi: Koji Yanai, a high-ranking executive at Fast Retailing, the parent company of Uniqlo, wasn’t there to talk about the latest fashion trends at Cannes Lions 2024. Instead, he surprised the audience by taking center stage to discuss toilets. But this was a captivating story about defying expectations and harnessing the power of creativity, all centered around the unlikely project: the Tokyo Toilet Project.

The project's roots stemmed from Yanai's desire to showcase Japanese hospitality and improve accessibility for the 2020 Paralympics. He envisioned a solution that catered specifically to those with disabilities. “When Tokyo was selected as the host city of the Paralympic Games in 2016, I was so excited and wanted to do something to promote the Paralympic Games,” Yanai explained.  

“I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Shingo Kunieda [a successful wheelchair tennis player] in 2016. He showed he was worried about the host city of Tokyo itself. Because Tokyo is not truly friendly for the disabled people.” This conversation was the beginning to an innovative journey, but his initial approach needed refinement. “I thought if I could make something special only for the disabled people, something luxurious, beautiful, prestigious and premium, but only disabled people can use it. I would like to make such unusual facilities in Tokyo," he admitted. 

However, a conversation with his father, Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Fast Retailing, prompted a shift in perspective. The elder Yanai emphasised the importance of inclusivity, leading Koji to completely rethink his approach. “Why not do the same thing for my project?" he asked the audience. “I would like to say we are all the same in the sense that we are all different. Namely, every single person is different. So I was thinking, what is open for everyone? What's the motto for everyone? And what's the pride of Japan?”

This new focus on inclusivity became the driving force behind the project. Instead of just focusing on functionality, Yanai knew aesthetics were equally important. He broke away from the traditional approach of relying solely on architects. “From the beginning, I decided I would not only invite architects,” he declared. “I strongly believe attacking the issues from multiple angles is one of the key success factors for problem solving.” This led to a unique team of creators, including product designers, fashion designers, and even university professors. The result? A collection of restrooms that were as visually stunning as they were functional.

Cleanliness: A point of pride,  Art: A catalyst for change

Maintaining the high level of cleanliness was a top concern.  Here, Yanai tapped into another facet of Japanese culture: the art of cleanliness. “As a Japanese people, I wanted to try to showcase our proud culture by keeping the public toilets clean as much as possible and treating them like we do in our own homes,” he explained.

But the project's impact went far beyond sparkling restrooms. Yanai later realised the power of art in influencing user behaviour. He partnered with filmmakers Koji Yasuhiro and Dentsu Inc. to create a short film, “Perfect Days,” that celebrated the dedication of the project's cleaners. The film not only became a tribute to these essential workers, but also unexpectedly transformed into a powerful promotional tool. “The movie was awarded in Cannes last year and nominated to the Oscar,” Yanai announced, a hint of surprise in his voice. “As a result, today I stand here and I hope it could be the most successful promotion for the Tokyo Toilet Project.”

The Tokyo Toilet Project transcended its original purpose. It became a testament to the transformative power of creativity and the importance of human connection. Yanai shared a closing anecdote that perfectly captured this essence. During a business trip to a Bangladesh refugee camp, he encountered refugees who, despite their hardships, had seen “Perfect Days” and found hope in its message. This encounter solidified Yanai's belief in the potential of creative projects to reach unexpected audiences and offer solace in the most difficult times. “There are many people who need clothing,” Yanai said, referencing Uniqlo's core philosophy. “We at Uniqlo try to produce the highest quality of clothing with the largest number of the people with the most supplies.”

“Sometimes it is difficult for us to make things which 100% people can say yes or good, but I would like to aim for such perfect things as a creator or producer.” Yanai then highlighted a key takeaway from the non-profit project. “Obviously, both projects [referring to the Tokyo Toilet Project and another social initiative] could not be completed on my own,” he admitted. “My own capability has a limit. But, if I know my limit, I can ask someone to cover the gap.”  Here, he acknowledged the importance of collaboration and teamwork in achieving ambitious goals. “Koji Yatsuro [filmmaker] and Takasaki-san [Dentsu Inc. executive] helped me,” he said,  illustrating this point with a specific example. “Hey Takasaki-san, if I don't consult with him, I couldn't realise to utilise the power of art. So I ended up by blending together two things that are difficult to understand.”

The project's success, however, wasn't solely measured by awards or media attention. The most significant impact, according to Yanai, was the unexpected connection it fostered. “We agreed, touching people's hearts and emotions is not possible for everyone. Only a few people have such skills,” he explained, referencing his collaboration with the filmmakers. “And then both of us had an experience to be moved by the amazing works of the film vendors and the Koji Yashio, so we decided to knock on the door to them.”  This artistic partnership not only elevated the project but also created a ripple effect of inspiration. “I'm sure there is still a lot of potential in the creatives and I would like to pursue this way,” Yanai declared with a newfound passion for the power of creative expression. 

Yanai concluded his presentation with a powerful image. “Recently, I had an interesting experience on my UNIQLO business trip,” he began,  segueing from the project to a broader message. “I took this picture when I visited the Bangladesh refugee camp with 1 million refugees. They have no bank account. In principle, they are not allowed to work. Schools are limited, minimal. It is very difficult for them to have a hope for the future. However, most of them have smartphones.” This seemingly incongruous detail painted a picture of resilience and a thirst for connection. “Uniqlo offers a livelihood programme for those who are not allowed to work there”.

The most impactful moment, however, was yet to come. “I met Billy Yang Refugee Group who were active as a journalist by using smartphones to take pictures to report the reality of the refugee camp. They survived very strongly. They recognised me as a producer of Perfect Days," Yanai recounted with a hint of awe. “I'm so surprised. I had no idea how Perfect Days could reach that far. But I'm sure this is the possibility of the creatives.” This chance encounter solidified Yanai's belief in the far-reaching power of creative projects to connect with audiences in unexpected ways, offering a spark of hope even in the most challenging circumstances.

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