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High-Technology Is Now in the Toilet


TOKYO — An American diplomat was at a dinner party in a Japanese home when he excused himself to go to the bathroom. He did his business, stood up, and realized he didn't have a clue about how to flush the toilet.

The diplomat speaks Japanese, but still was baffled by the colorful array of buttons on the complicated keypad. So he just started pushing.

He hit the noisemaker button that makes a flushing sound to mask any noise you might be making in the john. He hit the button that starts the blow-dryer for your bottom. Then he hit the bidet button and watched helplessly as a little plastic arm, sort of a squirt gun shaped like a toothbrush, appeared from the back of the bowl and began shooting a stream of warm water across the room and onto the mirror.

And that's how one of America's promising young Foreign Service officers ended up frantically wiping down a Japanese bathroom with toilet paper.

"It was one of my most embarrassing experiences in Japan," said the embassy employee who, diplomatically, asked not to be identified.

Forget that you need to know three alphabets to read a Japanese newspaper. Forget that the new fashion craze in Tokyo this spring is women gluing their bras in place. Forget horse sushi. The most puzzling thing for many foreigners here is Japanese toilets.

Just as many foreigners had finally mastered the traditional Japanese "squatter" with no seat, they are being confused anew by the latest generation of Japanese toilets: super-high-tech sit-down models with a control panel that looks like the cockpit of a plane.

Japan is the world leader in high-tech toilets, and its biggest toilet company, Toto, is working on a home model that will chemically analyze urine. Already selling well are toilets that clean themselves, have coatings that resist germs and spray pulsating water to massage your backside.

The toilets basically look like a standard American model, except for the control pad, which sometimes comes with a digital clock to tell you how long you have been in the bathroom. Some of the buttons control the temperature of the water squirted onto your backside. The bottom-washer function, combined with the bottom blow-dryer, is designed to do away with the need for toilet tissue.

Other buttons automatically open and close the lid. The button for men lifts the lid and seat; the button for women lifts the lid only. Some toilets even have a hand-held remote control: a clicker for the loo.

Many foreigners say that once you get used to these toilets, which cost $2,000 to $4,000, it's hard to do without them, especially the automatic seat warmer.

Harry Sweeney, an Irishman who raises horses on Japan's cold north island of Hokkaido, said he knows a man who drives a mile and a half out of his way each morning to use a public toilet with a heated seat. "It gets very cold up here in the winter, so those heated seats aren't a luxury, they're a necessity," Sweeney said.

But some people never get the hang of it--they find themselves panicked, trapped in stalls, unable to figure out how to flush. Worse, they find themselves stranded on the toilet, unsure how to shut off the spraying bidet and unable to get up without soaking themselves and the bathroom.

Hubert Igabille, a salesclerk at a Timberland clothing store in nearby Aoyama, said he thinks the computerized toilet needs a bilingual panel.

Toto sells about $400 million worth of high-tech Washlet toilets a year. It now markets the Travel Washlet, a portable, hand-held bottom washer.

Toto now wants a piece of the U.S. market. So it is starting with a less expensive, less complicated model. The U.S. Toto is a $600 seat, lid and control panel that attaches to a regular American toilet bowl. It features a heated seat, the bottom washer and a deodorizing fan that "breaks down odorous molecules and returns clean air into the bathroom environment," according to Toto's sales literature.

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