Toilet Day brings loos out of the closet

by Mark Schreiber

A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, as the saying goes. And so it came to pass that a number of planners, researchers and designers in a self-styled group called Toiletopia embarked on a campaign to upgrade the nation’s cans when they founded the Japan Toilet Association on May 15, 1985.

One of the fledgling association’s first moves was to have Nov. 10 declared Japan’s semiofficial “Toilet Day.” Why Nov. 10? Because in Japanese, the numbers 11 and 10 can be read as ii toire, meaning “nice toilet.”

Though it initially encountered some skepticism, before long the openness of the JTA’s campaign struck a responsive chord with the public.

As its former chairman, Kohei Yamamoto, recalled in a magazine interview: “There was some uncertainty in the beginning as to whether discussion of toilets would be in good taste. But we felt that if we could reach a certain level of coverage, the campaign could even spread worldwide.”

Along with its annual “National Toilet Symposium” to discuss improvement of public facilities, the JTA also drew media attention by sponsoring an annual competition to pick Japan’s top 10 public facilities.

This year, from Nov. 11, its two-day symposium in Kyoto is on the theme, “What Should Toilets Strive for in the 21st Century?” But alas, no winners will be announced, as the contest was suspended after 1999 — a victim of its own success. “It had come to the point that people almost took attractive lavatories for granted,” explains Koo Ue, the JTA’s secretary-general.

Although the association — currently boasting 70 corporate and 200 individual members — claims to have given loo aesthetics a big push forward, Ue feels there is still much to be done. “There’s more work needed to improve accessibility for the handicapped,” he says, “and at the World Water Council’s Third World Water Forum being held in Kansai next March, we’ll also be examining issues like waste management, water conservation and other environmental concerns.”

Certainly, in Japan, toilet-makers have the technology to take their wares almost any which way, and the nation’s architects and home-builders already have at their disposal an amazingly sophisticated array of plumbing devices. A prime example is Kokura-based TOTO Co. which, with financial year 2000 revenues of 425,900,000,000 yen and nearly two-thirds of the home-fixtures market, has enjoyed spectacular success with its “Washlet” bidet-type commodes.

Launched in 1980, the Washlet soon became a household word, with a controversial TV ad campaign in which a parade of celebrities endorsed it by asserting “I want my bottom to be clean.”

Another, more recent innovation from the Kyushu company is its “Otohime,” meaning “Sound Princess,” that features a built-in noise-maker. This was developed because some users — women, in particular — are in the habit of flushing repeatedly to mask their audible emanations. Hence the need for artificial background noise — which also saves water.

Perhaps the most technologically intriguing of TOTO’s newer range of toilet add-ons is its “Well-You,” a device that provides on-the-spot urine analysis within the minute. Already in its second generation, this gives diabetics an easy way to monitor their condition. Research is also ongoing to extend the scope of diagnostic loos, so that health data may one day be transmitted straight from water closet to medical record.

Rising expectations

With an eye on the general market, though, TOTO has high hopes for its latest model, the “Neorest,” that went on sale in July and “is currently moving at the rate of about 2,000 units a month,” according to PR spokesperson Kumi Goto. Priced from 352,000 yen, the elegant, state-of-the-art Neorest has a seat that rises automatically when a user approaches, and closes after he or she departs. When flushed, water gushes in a spiral pattern at higher pressure, giving more powerful action while consuming one-fifth less water. It also has an ultra-smooth surface finish that makes it easier to clean.

Bidet-type toilet units have not only gained wide acceptance in Japanese homes — in March this year, 47.7 percent were found to have loos of this type — but according to TOTO’s most recent survey they are also present in 34.3 percent of corporate offices and 44.5 percent of hotels. Interestingly, more than half the corporate customers cited “requests from company directors” as the key factor leading to their procurement.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Washlets are also in use at the country’s very seat of government — in the Diet members’ lavatories, no less.

Among the latest to benefit from rest-room beautification are some of Japan’s public schools — institutions whose toilets were so notoriously gloomy and unpleasant that a ghost named Hanako-san was traditionally said to frequent the girls’ stalls. Indeed, some children found using these facilities so traumatic that they would hold back and end up in the nurse’s office with stomach complaints.

“We didn’t have that problem,” says Yoko Ginnan, assistant principal of the Yamazaki primary school in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. “But after the renovation we noticed a marked change in the children’s attitude.”

As the school was built in 1967, by 1999 the toilets had become a bit decrepit, so that year the school was singled out by the ward’s Board of Education to receive “model toilet” treatment.

Prior to the renovation during that year’s summer vacation, students were asked to vote on designs and color schemes. Upon returning in fall, they were delighted with the results. The semicircular wall in the boys’ lavatory is bright and inviting, with urinals equipped with water-saving auto-flush mechanisms. The girls’ facility features several elongated mirrors with shelves to set books on while they primp their hair, or whatever.

“Not only do they feel good about using them, but they tend to leave the area as clean as when they entered,” Ginnan smiles approvingly.

Whether it’s thanks to Toilet Day, or not, the growing trend toward nicer loos is not only helping more schools to exorcise the ghosts of toilets past, but it’s making their young wards quite content in the bargain.