How Japan's Toilets Have Become Symbolic of Cultural Norms

With Control Panels That Have up to 38 Buttons, Soon They'll Measure Your Weight and Blood Pressure

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Dave McCaughan
Dave McCaughan
Everyone who visits Japan talks about the toilets. Awestruck visitors are amazed, bewildered or just decide to ensconce themselves for a while on toilets that are more like porcelain thrones in an exotic spa. Walk into the most modest of public conveniences and you are likely to find a seat with a control panel that offers a three-speed bidet hose, a warm seat in winter and water with temperature to match. Take in one of the latest upmarket models and you will get much more.

The big brands, Toto and Inax, seem in constant competition to add another feature, another button, another reason to ... well "go to the loo" as we say back in Australia.

In a country that is both fanatical about cleanliness and totally self-conscious, toilets have become symbolic of Japanese cultural norms. The desire not to disturb others; the importance of separating hands from bodily functions (a tip to travelers: don't use a handkerchief to blow your nose in public; putting it back in your pocket is considered a filthy habit ); the need for public restraint vs. private indulgence; and the belief that technology is always a friendly extension of oneself all come to life in the confines of the cubicle. Some of the current models come with a wireless control panel with up to 38 buttons controlling functions including hands-free automatic flushing and three cleansing modes for bidet type sprays. Then there is front and rear cleansing (of you, not the seat ) with a choice of oscillating or pulsating water sprays, self-cleaning nozzles, adjustable warm air drier, adjustable seat heating and an energy saver timer.

The big manufacturers are now working on models that will measure users' weight, blood pressure and body fat by means of electric currents emulating from the seat, and perform other health diagnostics like glucose-level tests and send the results to health care authorities. Sounds quirky, but perfectly fits with a country where employers have for over two decades realized that toilet breaks should be measured and analyzed in order to ensure more efficiency and maybe stave off employee health insurance increases.

Then there is the question of privacy. Over two decades ago, the Otihime was introduced. It's a device that is triggered when the bathroom door closes or the seat is being used that re-creates the sound of flowing water, therefore saving the embarrassment of your neighbor hearing the sound of your relieving yourself. Mostly used in public and work facilities for ladies, you can also buy battery-charged personal models so you're never caught making inappropriate sounds.

Of course, all toilets also come with the option of using paper but here too technology comes to the fore with the promise from Nepia, one of Japan's paper goods giants, that Japanese sheets will dissolve in water faster and more fully than Western formulations. That aids the desire to reduce water usage and sewerage flow. That's an important factor for many private and public organizations, as in Japan sewerage processing is their responsibility.

All of this leaves the visitor wondering if these super-facilities are symbolic of a greater meaning. But then again, from the day the toilet moved indoors, it has come to symbolize everything from domestic pride to domestic refuge.

A decade ago I was involved in some research into what mothers of typical Thai, Malaysian and Philippines families took most pride in. In one exercise we issued hundreds of these women with disposable cameras (before digital camera-loaded phones were ubiquitous) and asked them to take photos of everything they would miss most if their home disappeared. Of course they shot pictures of photo albums, of a special piece of tableware or clothes. Maybe they included their television or refrigerator and a few who had them included their family PC. And photos of their children, though curiously few included their husbands (in post interviews, it became clear we had asked about "homes." The husband was head of the "household" but too often absent from "the home," which was their distinct territory.). What was really interesting was that when we checked the most common item photographed was a Western-style indoor toilet. The only exceptions were women who had a traditional squat variation.

Why? Well, it was explained, anyone in the basest shack could have a TV or a PC if they could get access to electricity, legally or not. But access to a Western toilet, and its modern plumbing, meant you could afford to live in a place that had that most modern of facilities.

So maybe the fabulous Japanese toilets are not so strange. Maybe they are just the symbol of perhaps the world's most modern society. I think I will go now and sit down and have a think about that.

Dave McCaughan is Tokyo-based regional strategic planning director, McCann WorldGroup Asia Pacific.
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