Reference | FYI


Toilets: Japan power behind throne

by Masami Ito

Japan, the state-of-the-art high-tech powerhouse that gave the world manga and sushi, has also achieved prowess in a more fundamental feature of daily life: the toilet.

Once the nation began installing more and more Western-style toilets after the tried and true squat-type variety fell from favor, the basic pot for sitting has been transformed by gadgetry ranging from heated seats to full-service bidets, and even artificial sounds to disguise what otherwise is heard.

In their evolution, toilets have become the lap of luxury.

A key feature of the Japan Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010, which closed Sunday, was the “world’s No. 1” toilets, which visitors were welcomed to try out. From June, the venue even included one gold-plated toilet each in the men’s and women’s bathrooms.

Following are questions and answers regarding Japan’s rise to prominence in the high-tech toilet industry:

Who are the key players in high-tech toilets?

There are several companies in the sanitary ware business, but 90 percent of the market is dominated by two companies — Toto Ltd., which commands a 60 percent share, and Inax Corp., which has 30 percent.

According to a Toto survey, Asian- or Japanese-style squat-type toilets were king of the hill until 1976, when Japan began shipping an equal amount of Western-style alternatives.

As of September 2009, however, Western-style toilets accounted for 98 percent of new shipments, according to data gleaned by the Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association, an industry group to which Toto and Inax belong.

What prompted the shift to Western-style toilets?

Several factors were involved, but Japan’s hosting of international events, including the Tokyo Olympics and World Exposition, attracted throngs of foreigners, particularly those mainly inclined to use Western-style toilets, according to Toto.

In addition, the rapid graying of society has meant seniors are less able to squat and more comfortable using seated toilets.

But squat-type toilets are regarded as more sanitary by some because the body never comes in contact with them.

What is the history of flush toilets?

According to the children’s book “Toire no Daijoshikii” (“Common Sense about Toilets”) published in 2006 by Poplar Publishing Co., flush toilets of sorts date back at least to 2,200 B.C. Found in the ruins of a palace in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Tell Asmar in modern-day Iraq were the remains of Akkad period toilets made of brick that drained into a river.

Rome also came up with public flush toilets around 600 B.C. as conduits and drainage technology improved.

Japan’s oldest “flush” toilets appear to date to the Nara Period (710-784). Found at the site of the ancient capital of Fujiwara are the remains of latrine ditches that drained. Hole-in-the-ground toilets were also discovered, the book said.

What are the roots of the modern Western-style toilet?

London watchmaker Alexander Cummings is credited with creating the first self-contained flush toilet in 1775. The toilet bowl held water that was stopped by a sliding valve. By pulling a lever, the valve would slide and the contents in the bowl would be flushed down the drain.

Japan’s first sewerage system was introduced in Tokyo’s Kanda district in 1884, but generally speaking, such systems did not spread nationwide until after World War II.

Even at the end of the Showa Era, many households still had cesspits that were cleaned out regularly by septic service trucks, according to “Toire no Daijoshikii.”

Most places now have flush toilets, but hole-in-the-ground ones are still used at construction sites or in makeshift facilities in disaster areas.

When did bidets become popular in Japan?

Japan originally began importing bidets in the 1960s from Western countries for medical purposes.

In 1967, Inax developed the first Japan-made bidet. That was followed in 1980 by Toto’s Washlet series, which boasted heated seats and a warm water wash. The brand is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

According to a Cabinet Office survey, only 14.2 percent of households had bidet-style toilets in 1992, but as of last March, 71.6 percent did.

The Washlet, a widespread household feature nowadays, was the product of a great deal of hard work, Toto spokeswoman Akiko Yamasaki said.

“There were no data — we didn’t know where a person’s buttocks would be located (on the seat),” Yamasaki said. “We began to develop (the Washlet) without any data, including what water temperature would make a person’s backside begin to feel too hot.”

Why the flushing sound effects?

Toilets in bathrooms used by women, who tend to be bashful, often are equipped with components that replicate the sound of flushing to disguise the sounds they make.

When not equipped with sound effects, people tend to flush toilets simply to cover up the sounds they make.

In Japan, this practice dates back at least to the Edo Period (1603-1867), when wealthy households would unplug pots full of water just for the sound.

Are there domestic regulations on how much water can be used when flushing?

Japan has no such rules, but other countries do. According to Toto data, the United States, Canada, Australia, European states and Brazil set the limit at 6 liters maximum per flush, while China caps it at 9 liters.

Many toilets in Japan still use the 13-liter types that debuted in the 1970s, the sanitary equipment association says on its website. But the toilet industry has been moving to conserve water since the 1990s.

As of January, domestic shipments of toilets that use less than 6 liters per flush surpassed 5 million units, according to the group. It estimates that if all of the toilets in Japan were replaced with water-conserving ones, Japan would save up to 1.6 billion cu. meters of water, or enough to fill up 854 Tokyo Domes.

What functions do the latest high-tech bidet-toilets offer?

Fully equipped with automatic lids, adjustment knobs to ensure the perfect temperature, dryers, powerful deodorizing functions and heated seats, Japanese bathrooms cater to comfort and relaxation.

Inax’s Regio model, which comes in sleek black or white, debuted in June 2008, transforming the bathroom into a “dressing area,” creating an image of space. The Regio’s high-tech features include a “silent stream” flush and selection of jazz music.

Toto’s latest high-end Washlet model, the Neorest, came out in August 2009, equipped with a music system, including original Toto tunes, and an “auto fragrance” function that offers a selection of four scents, including floral and citrus.

“Toto’s Washlets were not created for people with medical needs,” spokeswoman Yamasaki said.

“They were made for comfort, to be used by general households. . . . In a sense, these toilets are luxury items.”

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