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 he was still baffled by the colorful array of buttons on the complicated keypad on the toilet. 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 a wad of 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 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 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 clothes store in nearby Aoyama, said he thinks the computerized toilet in his shop needs a bilingual panel. Some customers take one look at the Japanese characters on the control panel and decide to skip it, he said.
Igabille sees the bathroom gadgetry as a logical extension of high-tech Japan, where airport vacuums whiz around without any human help, many cars are equipped with digital displays that use satellite technology to plot the driver's exact location on a map, and researchers are planning to use cockroaches fitted with miniature cameras to inspect sewer pipes.
Although Japan is the world's second-richest nation, 30 percent of Japanese people live in homes that are not hooked up to sewer lines or septic tanks and have no flush toilets, according to the Construction Ministry. But in recent years in places where there is a flush system, super-luxurious high-tech toilets have become extremely popular.
Toto sells about $400 million worth of high-tech Washlet toilets a year, and they estimate they have only half the market here. They have expanded that market with the Travel Washlet, a portable hand-held bottom washer. Going on a trip where they might not have top-of-the-line toilets? No problem: Just fill your "Travel Washlet" with warm water at home. Then after nature calls on the road, unfold the little squirt-nozzle and wash your behind just like at home. At $100 each, Toto has sold 180,000 of these gizmos in the last two years.
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 literature.
Toto has gone to great lengths to make its toilets, bathtubs and other products user-friendly. Thousands of people have collected data on the best features of a toilet, and at the company's "human engineering laboratory," volunteers sit in a Toto bathtub with electrodes strapped to their skull, to measure brain waves and "the effects of bathing on the human body."
Toto spokesman Yojiro Watanabe said the toilets are also popular because they make the bathroom a place where people want to spend relaxed time. Japanese homes are generally so small that the bathroom is often the only place where someone can be alone, he said.
"Particularly middle-aged salarymen have no personal space in their lives," Watanabe said. "So especially for them, bathrooms can be the only place where privacy is guaranteed."
Tom Quinn, a Californian who does play-by-play analysis of sumo matches on Japanese television, said he has a high-tech toilet at home but wishes he had a plain old American one. "I don't like anything startling in the bathroom," he said. "I don't want rocket controls on my toilet."
Researcher Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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