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Brief history of Japan’s culture of techno-toilets

Hotels in Japan now advertise high-tech seats, the way wireless Internet is touted in the US.

By Amelia NewcombStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 2008

Toilet with a remote: At a showroom in Tokyo, Toto spokeswoman Asuka Osada demonstrates a remote control that can program key features.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor

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Tokyo

For Westerners, it is the device that has launched a thousand euphemisms: the water closet, the loo, the john, the can. Its existence is about function – one that is best left as unacknowledged as possible.

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But in Japan – where Western-style commodes replaced the traditional squat-style affair only three decades ago – the porcelain throne has attained something of a royal status. A quotidian workhorse is now a high-tech, multifeatured must-have that elicits almost reverential observations.

For Japanese today, it’s so important that one type of toilet seat is an advertised feature at hotels.

Toyoko Inn, one of Japan’s largest hotel chains, now makes the “Washlet” brand standard. “If we had not installed them, they would have gone to another hotel,” says Mami Ohashi, a hotel official. “[For most customers], a Washlet in the room is as high a priority as Internet connections.”

The Washlet – a seat that adds a bidet function and so much more to a regular toilet – evokes warm feelings. That may be, in part, because some of the toilets literally heat up and light up when you walk in the room.

But consumers can also summon features that spritz your backside, dry, deodorize, flush automatically, and lower and raise the lid hands-free. Nor is there any need to do all this in silence: With the tap of a remote control, you can program a built-in audio system with the performance music of your choice.

To help reduce hotel water costs, Japan’s No. 1 toiletmaker, Toto, this year introduced a water-saving feature (similar to flow-optimized shower heads), as well as a special self-cleaning nozzle, an important feature for public toilets.

It has taken Japanese a while to come around to the idea of the bathroom as a night at the Ritz. Until fairly recently, even the notion of sharing a toilet that someone else had touched was anathema here; people squatted over low toilets instead. Developers also had to get past what was seen here as the idiocy of subjecting your warm backside to a cold seat – especially in winter, when a lack of central heating could make the encounter particularly distressing.

So in 1980, Toto went on the offensive. It came out with the Washlet. But marketers faced a challenge: convincing Japanese that what they were offering was the apotheosis of bathroom technology.

“We didn’t have a bidet culture at the time – Japanese squat toilets were still popular,” says Atsuko Kono, who handles public relations for the company. “So we got a lot of ‘what is this?’ comments.”

Undaunted, Toto unleashed a wildly successful ad campaign featuring a popular actress making pointed observations. The firm put the toilets in department stores. Consumers could get a map of public Washlet locales in Tokyo, bringing a sort of scavenger-hunt excitement to learning about bathroom functionality.

Engineers, meanwhile, worked assiduously to achieve the perfect water temperature as well as the proper angle for the bidet-feature nozzle that extends into the center of the bowl. Asuka Osada, who also works in public relations for Toto, notes that a squat-style Washlet was once tried and soon abandoned. “But that is a legend – we have never seen it,” she says in a tone that evokes the search for the Lost Ark.

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