Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Big Necessity by Rose George

'Japan makes the most advanced, remarkable toilets in the world. Japanese toilets can, variously, check your blood pressure, play music, wash and dry your anus and "front parts" by means of an in-toilet nozzle that sprays water and warm air, suck smelly ions from the air, switch on a light for you as you stumble into the bathroom at night, put the seat lid down for you ( a function known as the "marriage-saver"), and flush away your excreta without requiring anything so old-fashioned as a tank. These devices are known as high-function toilets, but even the lowliest high-function toilet will have as standard an in-built bidet system, a heated seat and some form of nifty control panel... This is the Washlet experience (usually translated as Washeretto).

Ryosuke Hayashi is Chief Senior Engineer and Manager of the Restroom Product Development Department at TOTO, one on the most successful toilet manufacturing corporations in Japan. 'Rick' is an important man. Of the 1,500 patents that TOTO has filed in Japan ( and 600 internationally), the Restroom Department is responsible for half and he finds my interest in Washlet quaint. It's been around since 1980, after all, when TOTO revamped the Wash Air Seat and launched the Washlet G ( for 'gorgeous') series. He'd rather talk about the Neorest, Toto's top-of-the line toilet and, in his engineering eyes, an infinitely superior combination of plumbing and computing.. retailing in Japan for $1,700, and in the United States for $5,000.

I persist in asking about the genesis of the Washlet and how it changed Japan and Rick finally humors me.

The original Wash Air Seat operated mechanically. It took several minutes for the spray to spray and the water to heat. TOTO solved this problem by making the workings electronically operated, the spray instant and the angle perfect. The Washlet nozzle extends and retracts at exactly 43 degrees, a position precisely calibrated to prevent any cleansing water from falling back on the nozzle after doing its job (this is known as 'backwash'). Determining the angle was a long, careful process, says Rick. I ask him how the research was done. He says, "Well we have 20,000 employees" and stops. I wait for enlightenment.

His assistant Asuka hands me a comic book by way of an answer. It is a 48-page TOTO history published by Weekly Sankei magazine in 1985.

The nozzle has to be accurate, and to make it so they needed to know the average location of the human anus. Facts like this are not easy to find, so they turned to the only source material available, which was anybody on the company payroll. Their workmates weren't impressed. "Though we are colleagues", one said with politeness, " I don't want you to know my anus position."

The engineers prevailed by performing the dogeza, the exceedingly respectful bow that requires someone to be almost prostrate. It is the kind of bow, a translator tells me, "that a peasant would do to a passing samurai if he wanted the samurai not to kill him- an exceedingly shocking thing to do in the context of toilets. Yet it worked...


  1. One sanitation specialist has estimated that people who live in areas with inadequate sanitation ingest 10 grams of fecal matter every day. Poor saniation, bad hygiene, and unsafe water- usually unsafe because it has fecal particles in it- cause one in ten of the world's illnesses. Children suffer most. Diarrhea- nearly 90% of which is caused by fecally contaminated food or water- kills a child every fifteen seconds. The number of children who have died from diarrhea in the last decade exceeds the total number of people killed by armed conflict since the Second World War. Diarrhea, says UNICEF, is the largest hurdle a small child in a developng country has to overcome. Larger than AIDS, or TB or malaria. Public health professionals talk about water-related diseases, but that is a euphemism. These are shit related diseases.

  2. It is centuries since sewage consisted of pure human fecal material. Into the sewage, anything goes. The French call this 'tout a l'egout' or "everything down the drain" (to be contrasted with their earlier habit of discharging tout a la rue).