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.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor
Toilet with a remote: At a showroom in Tokyo, Toto spokeswoman Asuka Osada demonstrates a remote control that can program key features.

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.

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.

Employees did their bit: Nozzle designs, for example, were tested by monitoring the experiences of 300 employees. Enlisting such help has gotten easier over time, says Osada: “When we started, even employees didn’t want to help because they were scared,” she says. “But now they know, so it’s not so scary.”

Today, some 17 million Washlets later, the fixtures are found in 70 percent of residential homes and in countless public facilities. Toto holds 60 percent of the market in Japan – its largest rival is Inax, which also makes a bidet-style toilet seat.

Like buying a car: so many options
For potential customers, the purchasing experience can rival that of picking out a new car. Japanese are big on functionality, says Osada. There’s a choice on washing – strong water flow versus weak. Consumers must decide if they or the water nozzle will have to adjust for maximum effect. Auto flushing and seat lifting will cost more, as will the sensors that flip on lights positioned on one side of the toilet to support a happy nighttime experience.

“Our engineers say that when you get in [the bathroom], you are king or queen of the toilet and you can use it as you wish,” says Osada.

For Japanese whose homes are typically tight on space, she adds, the bathroom is the one place where privacy can be assured – hence the desire for an experience that can be extended by such luxuries as remote control music and appealing fragrances on demand.

Users, happily, can rest easy that all that luxury isn’t hurting the environment. Developers have created what might be called the faux flush – a button that conjures a geyser-like sound for those who don’t like others to hear their activity. It dramatically saves on water. Makers of the bidet-like devices also tout that they reduce use of toilet paper by 50 percent to 90 percent. (Americans, it should be noted, use more than 3.2 millions tons annually.)

The high-end model, the Neorest, offers neutral deodorizers as well as fragrances that invoke the four seasons. And the toilet will power up or down according to usage patterns: Osada notes that when she stays later than usual at work, the toilet seat is no longer heated, because it knows that users typically aren’t around at that hour.

For all this, a consumer is willing to fork over amounts ranging from about $750 to nearly $2,000 – and that’s before you attach the actual toilet. High-end all-in-one toilets can run $5,000.

Jun Ueno, a resident of Tokyo, swears by his Washlet, waxing poetic and downright passionate about its features. To him, it’s obvious why a toilet-paper free existence is not only more pleasant, but healthier. A Washlet-free existence is not an option for him.

“I like having these in hotels,” says Mr. Ueno, a commercial photographer. As backup, he carries a portable version, a squirt-gun-like affair that can do the job in a pinch. Still, he says, “I always desperately hope they have these when I go abroad.”

But is the rest of the world ready for a Tiffany-grade toilet seat? Before one says no, thinking that this is just another quirky Japanese invention, remember this: the Sony Walkman was met with skepticism when it debuted in the 1980s.

-- Amelia Newcomb reported this story from Tokyo as a fellow of the International Reporting Project.

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