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Japan Is Flush With Obsession

The country has an enduring fascination with the toilet--replete with cutting-edge technology, Web sites, symposiums and museums. The enthusiasm is largely lost on foreigners.

By Mark Magnier, L.A. Times - 1999


     KOKURA, Japan--It's got wings, it's sensitive, it's smart. It cares, it knows when you're around, it bleats when you arrive. Ignore it and you could be sorry. Treat it well and it will comfort you in your old age.
     A new kind of house pet? No, it's the Japanese toilet in all its glory. And if you believe its makers, it's only getting better.
     Japan has an enduring fascination with the toilet, replete with cutting-edge intelligent-toilet research, toilet Web sites, symposiums, antique toilet museums, solid 24-karat-gold johns and official Toilet Days. Nowhere else on Earth do so many people spend so much money on such expensive thrones.
     Japan's enthusiasm is largely lost on foreigners. In sharp contrast to their receptiveness to the Japanese cameras, autos and Walkmans that have taken the world by storm, few Americans or Europeans seem to covet Japan's super bowls--some of which can cost $4,000.
     Now major Japanese manufacturers hope to change that by creating something with more universal appeal. Their latest project: a toilet that doubles as a doctor's office.
     At Matsushita's research center in Tokyo, scientists explain how they are working on embedding technology in the porcelain that will catch a urine sample, shoot it full of lasers and in short order test it for glucose, kidney disease and eventually even cancer.
     One of the researchers, Tatsuro Kawamura, says future smart toilets will compile and compare medical results day by day, allowing doctors to spot important changes.
     Japan's undisputed king of toilets is Toto Ltd., which has noticed the enormous profits ahead in serving Japan's rapidly aging population, although it's moving slower on the medical front.
     Toto set the industry standard in the 1980s with its high-tech Washlet, which got worldwide publicity at the time. With the slogan "Even your bottom wants to stay clean," it built mass appeal in Japan for the $1,000-and-up toilets previously confined to sanitariums and hospitals.
     Nearly 20 years later, these once-luxury items can be found in about 30% of Japanese homes. The fully configured Washlet, the Lexus of toiletry, has enough lights, hoses, buttons, remote controls and temperature and water-pressure adjustments to bowl over even the most avid gadget freak.
     Master the Washlet's controls--many foreigners don't and emerge soaking and embarrassed--and your bum will be warmed even as your undercarriage is squirted with warm water and blow-dried, obviating the need for toilet paper.
     "Once you use it, you wonder how you could ever do without it," says Mariko Fujiwara, a researcher with the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living.
     What's behind Japan's keen interest in toiletry?
     Takahiko Furata, director of Aomori University's Modern Social Studies Institute, cites the Shinto religion's traditional emphasis on physical and spiritual cleanliness.
     "Japanese hate impurities and think it's important to have a place to remove them. That place is the toilet," he says. "Japanese toilet culture is based on this idea."
     Others such as Eiko Mizuno, a researcher at the Life Design Institute, note that the toilet may be one of the few places people in crowded Japan can go for a few minutes of quiet--akin to the automobile for some Americans.
     And Dr. Hiroshi Ojima, a proctologist at Japan's Social Insurance Central Hospital, traces the popularity of Washlets to Japan's high constipation rate and low fiber intake relative to many other countries.
     Whatever the reason, it all spells big bucks. Toto's most complicated model for the elderly is the EWCS120K, which includes armrests and something resembling an ejection seat for people unable to stand without help. A quick glance at its most elaborate configuration leaves the impression there's a small aircraft in your bathroom.

     A Guide to Public Restrooms

     Japan's toilet culture isn't limited to the plumbing, however.
     One of several Japanese toilet Web sites asks volunteers to visit and rate Tokyo's public restrooms, a sort of twisted Zagat Survey. It invites photos of the most disgusting cases and posts them in the "Harsh Site of the Day" section.
     Another site, called Toilet Television, offers global comparisons and a quiz. Sample question: What percentage of the world uses toilet paper? Answer: 30%--alternatives include hands, water, sand, small rocks, mud, leaves and rope. In the old days, Japanese used seaweed, while Americans used corn husks, it adds helpfully.
     For those in search of more theory, the southern island of Kyushu hosted in mid-November the 15th Japanese National Toilet Symposium, where 500 toilet experts from 15 countries and global groups schmoozed, feasted and voted for their 10 favorite toilets. In past years, the group has also celebrated the toilet's importance with an official day devoted to it.
     And people intrigued by toilet paper can chase down Hideo Nishioka, chairman of the Japan Toilet Assn. His personal toilet paper collection features 400 samples from more than 50 nations. One of his favorites: an Italian roll with a rendering of Botticelli's famous painting "The Birth of Venus."
     Out in the marketplace, meanwhile, the Japanese are spending more than $100 million annually on over-the-counter pills designed to prevent any odors they might generate while luxuriating on all these fancy Washlets.
     They're also shelling out to fight noise pollution and save water. It seems that many Japanese women flush repeatedly to hide embarrassing sounds. Now some bathrooms include the "Sound Princess," a device that mimics the sound of flushing water in place of the real thing.
     There are toilet exhibits and museums. In Tokoname, near Nagoya, the "Kiln Plaza" museum displays porcelain toilets dating back 150 years. Rioh Semba, the collector who owns most of the antiques, says his interest in tea-ceremony porcelain sparked this rather unusual collection. He now owns 500 commodes.
     A toilet museum with more popular appeal, meanwhile, is the World Toilet Exhibit in Nakatado-gun on the island of Shikoku. Unicharm, a sanitary-napkin company, contributed $535,000 in 1994 to craft a solid gold toilet and gold bathroom slippers (the ultra-clean Japanese use different footwear for the john), an exhibit that has wowed the crowds from the start.
     The willingness of the Japanese to spend big reached full flower in the 1980s, as disposable income grew, says Miho Mizuhaki, a planning official with Inax, Japan's No. 2 toilet maker. "That's when toilet culture really started to take off," she adds.
     Not everyone hails this, however. In fact, some, like the Toilet Assn.'s Nishioka, think Japan has gone a bit too far.
     "The Japanese have become too obsessed with cleanliness," he says, citing recent news reports about students who refuse to use school bathrooms that don't have Washlets.
     Japan wasn't always this way. A century ago, it used some pretty basic technology, if you can call it that. Until the early 1900s, human waste generated in the cities was hauled to the country and sold to farmers as fertilizer. The Hakuhodo Institute's Fujiwara says dealers paid more for rich people's waste because their diet was better.
     In fact, when it comes to johns, Japan is a Johnny-come-lately. For most of its history, Japan used a variation on the hole in the ground. Plumbing didn't make much of an appearance until the 1923 Yokohama earthquake underscored the danger of disease.
     After World War II, as the Western toilet became more popular, Japan relied on a tried-and-true tactic to catch up: It borrowed toilet technology from France, Switzerland and the United States, reverse-engineered it, improved it and voilà: the Washlet.
     "Japanese are keen about taking foreign ideas and fully developing them," said Aomori University's Furata. "It's a basic Japanese trait."

     An Innovation That Went Nowhere

     One of the dead ends on the road to high-tech toiletry can be found in the bowels of Japan's National Stadium, the showcase of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Directly under the field along a low, dusty hallway lined with electric wires sits one of Japan's few remaining female urinals, several hundred of which were made by Toto between 1951 and 1968.
     The female urinal, which rises out of the floor like a modified cone, is a Japanese invention meant to save time. It never caught on.
     "Women just didn't like to use them," says Miyuki Matsumoto, a Toto planning official.
     After almost 20 years of Washlet revenue, Toto is searching for its next mega-hit as the old machines start to break down. The firm is weathering the bad publicity that followed when four old Washlets caught fire, prompting headlines such as "Check behind you."
     Meanwhile, as Japan contemplates how far it has come with its advanced digital toilet technology, some wonder if there's a danger Japanese toilets will run amok Jan. 1. Are they Y2K compliant?
     "They all include computers," said Inax's Mizuhaki. "But we don't expect anything bad to happen. We don't see any danger that the water will shoot out or keep on flushing."

     Etsuko Kawase of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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