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Japan Is Flush With Obsession

The country has an enduring fascination with the toilet--replete with cutting-edge technology, Web sites, symposiums and museums. The enthusiasm is largely lost on foreigners.


KOKURA, Japan — It's got wings, it's sensitive, it's smart. It cares, it knows when you're around, it bleats when you arrive. Ignore it and you could be sorry. Treat it well and it will comfort you in your old age.

A new kind of house pet? No, it's the Japanese toilet in all its glory. And if you believe its makers, it's only getting better.

Japan has an enduring fascination with the toilet, replete with cutting-edge intelligent-toilet research, toilet Web sites, symposiums, antique toilet museums, solid 24-karat-gold johns and official Toilet Days. Nowhere else on Earth do so many people spend so much money on such expensive thrones.

Japan's enthusiasm is largely lost on foreigners. In sharp contrast to their receptiveness to the Japanese cameras, autos and Walkmans that have taken the world by storm, few Americans or Europeans seem to covet Japan's super bowls--some of which can cost $4,000.

Now major Japanese manufacturers hope to change that by creating something with more universal appeal. Their latest project: a toilet that doubles as a doctor's office.

At Matsushita's research center in Tokyo, scientists explain how they are working on embedding technology in the porcelain that will catch a urine sample, shoot it full of lasers and in short order test it for glucose, kidney disease and eventually even cancer.

One of the researchers, Tatsuro Kawamura, says future smart toilets will compile and compare medical results day by day, allowing doctors to spot important changes.

Japan's undisputed king of toilets is Toto Ltd., which has noticed the enormous profits ahead in serving Japan's rapidly aging population, although it's moving slower on the medical front.

Toto set the industry standard in the 1980s with its high-tech Washlet, which got worldwide publicity at the time. With the slogan "Even your bottom wants to stay clean," it built mass appeal in Japan for the $1,000-and-up toilets previously confined to sanitariums and hospitals.

Nearly 20 years later, these once-luxury items can be found in about 30% of Japanese homes. The fully configured Washlet, the Lexus of toiletry, has enough lights, hoses, buttons, remote controls and temperature and water-pressure adjustments to bowl over even the most avid gadget freak.

Master the Washlet's controls--many foreigners don't and emerge soaking and embarrassed--and your bum will be warmed even as your undercarriage is squirted with warm water and blow-dried, obviating the need for toilet paper.

"Once you use it, you wonder how you could ever do without it," says Mariko Fujiwara, a researcher with the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living.

What's behind Japan's keen interest in toiletry?

Takahiko Furata, director of Aomori University's Modern Social Studies Institute, cites the Shinto religion's traditional emphasis on physical and spiritual cleanliness.

"Japanese hate impurities and think it's important to have a place to remove them. That place is the toilet," he says. "Japanese toilet culture is based on this idea."

Others such as Eiko Mizuno, a researcher at the Life Design Institute, note that the toilet may be one of the few places people in crowded Japan can go for a few minutes of quiet--akin to the automobile for some Americans.

And Dr. Hiroshi Ojima, a proctologist at Japan's Social Insurance Central Hospital, traces the popularity of Washlets to Japan's high constipation rate and low fiber intake relative to many other countries.

Whatever the reason, it all spells big bucks. Toto's most complicated model for the elderly is the EWCS120K, which includes armrests and something resembling an ejection seat for people unable to stand without help. A quick glance at its most elaborate configuration leaves the impression there's a small aircraft in your bathroom.

A Guide to Public Restrooms

Japan's toilet culture isn't limited to the plumbing, however.

One of several Japanese toilet Web sites asks volunteers to visit and rate Tokyo's public restrooms, a sort of twisted Zagat Survey. It invites photos of the most disgusting cases and posts them in the "Harsh Site of the Day" section.

Another site, called Toilet Television, offers global comparisons and a quiz. Sample question: What percentage of the world uses toilet paper? Answer: 30%--alternatives include hands, water, sand, small rocks, mud, leaves and rope. In the old days, Japanese used seaweed, while Americans used corn husks, it adds helpfully.

For those in search of more theory, the southern island of Kyushu hosted in mid-November the 15th Japanese National Toilet Symposium, where 500 toilet experts from 15 countries and global groups schmoozed, feasted and voted for their 10 favorite toilets. In past years, the group has also celebrated the toilet's importance with an official day devoted to it.

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