NEW YORK - When she visited Japan in December 2005 for the first time in 12 years, Madonna said she had missed the warm toilet seats.
The dance-pop sensation’s high marks for the bidet-toilet aroused a ripple of laughter during a news conference upon her arrival in Tokyo.
But Madonna is only one of a few Americans who have used the product.
In Japan, the bidet-toilet is a standard fixture in many houses. Around 60 percent of households are now equipped with such high-tech seats, a sharp climb from about 23 percent in 1995, according to a survey by the Cabinet Office.
The bidet-toilet is sold in Japan by market leader Toto Co., its archrival Inax Corp. and major electrical machinery makers such as Sanyo Electric Co., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd.
Toto’s bidet-toilet first gained public attention with a landmark TV commercial in 1982, which carried a promotion phrase: “Buttocks, too, want to be washed.”
Although bidet-toilets remained expensive for a long time, fierce market competition over the years has brought down their prices even while recent products have adopted more high-tech features such as a buttocks dryer and a sensor-equipped lid that opens automatically when someone stands in front and closes after the job is done.
“It may be appropriate to describe the bidet-toilet as a toilet seat with warm water, bidet-style washing,” said Atsuko Kuno, a Toto spokesperson in Tokyo.
Toto started importing a bidet-toilet, called Wash Air Seat, from American Bidet Co. for sale in Japan in 1964. Two years later it started domestic production.
In 1980, the company launched sales of the domestically produced Washlet. Sales of the product grew steadily, and cumulative sales surpassed 20 million units in 2005, making it the market leader with a share of more than 30 percent. Washlet has now become the common name for bidet-toilets in Japan.
Besides Japan, Washlets are sold in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, India, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Canada.
But the company acknowledges on its Web site that Washlet is not as popular abroad as in Japan, though it says it is confident the product promises an “evolution” in toilet culture.
“Washlet is the kind of product whose popularity and demand grow through experience of use and word of mouth,” Toto says.
Based on this concept, the company has offered the product to hospitals, office buildings and sports facilities free of charge.
The company’s medium-term management program, which started in 2004, called for boosting its overseas Washlet sales index to 515 in the 2006 business year from 100 in 2002.
In the United States, explosive sales are unlikely in the coming years, industry analysts say.
Some observers say the number of plumbers there well-versed in the installation of Washlets is still limited, making it hard for the company to offer adequate after-sale service.
“No, that’s not the main reason. Expertise is not necessary to install the Washlet in homes and buildings,” said Kenichi Kusakabe, who manages T.I.C., a Manhattan agent of Toto. “The main reason is that it’s very hard to explain what the Washlet is to Americans who have never been to Japan.
“Some Americans are worried they may be infected with bacteria and viruses by using such bidet-toilets.
“New York Yankees players (Hideki) Matsui and (Kei) Igawa recently ordered us to install Washlets in their apartments. Orders also come from Japanese businessmen in New York. American users are mostly those who have been to Japan,” Kusakabe said.
“Moreover, we face a number of problems such as strict restrictions that building management companies impose on the installation of equipment at toilets and different specifications of toilet seats.”
Last month, Toto marked its 90th anniversary. Ironically, also in April it announced a recall of more than 180,000 Washlets for free repairs due to reports of 29 cases of the units emitting smoke or catching fire.
Even so, the major sanitary ceramics manufacturer aims for steady growth in U.S. sales.
“We expect U.S. sales this year to grow 15 percent from last year to 33 billion yen,” said Toto’s Kuno.
Toto has set up showrooms in such places as New York, Chicago, Florida and West Hollywood, Calif., where local agents are displaying a variety of Washlet models and offering after-sale services.
“Washlet in New York — is it a luxury way of life? No, we don’t think so,” says the ad placed by T.I.C. in a free New York paper for Japanese residents.
Washlets are priced in the U.S. at about $599 for standard models and $1,000 for luxury units. Installation costs around $150.
With the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing and the 2010 World Expo set for Shanghai, the company is poised to take advantage of a construction boom in China.
“We project China sales to increase 10 percent to 37 billion yen in 2007,” Kuno said.