Translating observations of the everyday through the languages of design and culture

28 April 2009

TOTO, MY HERO: The exquisite Japanese toilet experience

If you have never had the privilege of using a modern Japanese toilet, please put it on the top of your list of things to do before you die. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most dignified experiences...for one of our least glamorous of duties. I have never given much thought to the toilet experience but given that we spend a fairly significant percentage of our life engaged in this inevitable activity, why wouldn't we consider how to make it the best possible? 



Toto, the premier Japanese maker of toilets and other plumbing marvels, is my new hero. Following World War II, Japan started to manufacture Western-style toilets in a departure from the traditional Asian-style squatters. In doing so, they have found innovative ways to surpass their international competition, much like they did in the automobile industry. Coincidentally, Toto's Washlet, a revolutionary toilet seat, includes many features to enhance your experience that are similar to the modern automobile: heated seats, front and rear washing, music/sound and air fresheners. While fascinating, I initially thought these features extravagant and unnecessary. However, over time I've come to truly appreciate their practicality and usefulness. Even though many of the Washlet's features are in direct response to Japanese culture and circumstances, the resulting experience translates universally.

For example, most Japanese buildings don't have central heating and are often drafty, so only the main spaces (bedrooms, living room, etc.) are heated during the cold months. As you can imagine, venturing into the bathroom on a cold winter night is a shocking experience akin to having to run outside to an outhouse, until your shivering bare bum is welcomed by the warm embrace of the sultry seat. Also, as cleanliness and hygiene are very highly regarded in Japan, the front and rear washing bidet-style water spouts which often have adjustable angles and pressure, allow hands-free comprehensive cleaning, especially when combined with the air drier feature. Finally, It's considered rude and embarrassing in Japan for someone else to hear you do your business, especially for women. Since most homes have very thin walls and public toilets are in such close proximity to each other the music/sound component, which can include music options and/or various water sounds often with volume control, provides the user with a sonic shield. Similarly, the air freshener option exudes politeness to all present.

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On a recent trip to Tokyo, I visited the Toto showroom (Shinjuku L Tower, floors 26 & 27) and delighted in the newest products on display. The fanciest models have motion sensor activated lids (for opening and closing) and control panels built into the cabinets which flip over to be revealed like a car stereo when approached, hands-free flushing, massage features, warm air drying with variable three-temperature setting and automatic air purifiers. Future models in development include talking toilets and features that measure your pulse, blood pressure, body fat content and blood sugar. Again, as outlandish as some of these features sound, most are really quite practical, based on good hygiene practices and even preventative health. What other opportunities exist beyond the standard Western-style toilet experience? I can't wait to see what Toto dreams up next. Perhaps voice-activated Sudoku so you can still bide your time without having to worry about contamination? 

I originally regarded Toto as the flashy, glitzy Ferrari in the land of the loos. But, I was absolutely mistaken. I now see that Toto is the sensible, thoughtful and ever reliable Volvo. 

As an aside, during my trip to the Toto showroom, I loved seeing a formal Japanese businessman testing the comfort of the toilets by sitting down on them while discussing the merits with the rest of his colleagues but by far my favorite part of the Toto showroom were the Trylets, the public restrooms in which you can literally try out the different models yourself. Genius product interaction.

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