Japan engineers focus on bottom line
by James Brooke - N.Y. Times October 2002
NARA, JAPAN -- The toilet wars started in February, when Matsushita engineers introduced a toilet seat with electrodes that send a mild electric charge through the buttocks -- and take a digital measurement of body-fat ratio.
Engineers from a rival company, Inax, countered in April with a toilet that glows in the dark and lifts its lid after an infrared sensor detects a human being. When in use, the toilet plays any of six soundtracks, including chirping birds, rushing water, tinkling wind chimes or the strumming of a traditional Japanese harp.
In a Japanese house, "the only place you can be alone and sit quietly is likely to be the toilet," said Masahiro Iguchi, marketing chief for Inax.
This may be one explanation for the ferocious toilet research going on in Japan. While the nation is famously addicted to gadgetry of any variety, its population is peaking and the number of households is expected to start declining by the end of the decade.
Some money can be made by exporting toilets to countries with comparatively primitive toilet cultures, but the real sales growth will be found by adding exotic features.
In May, Matsushita introduced a $3,000 throne that greets a user not only by flipping its lid, but also by blasting its twin air nozzles -- air-conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. Patting this Cadillac of toilets, chief engineer Hiroyuki Matsui said, "You can bring a bathroom temperature down by 7 degrees Celsius [44.6 degrees Fahrenheit] in 30 seconds."
In June, Toto, Japan's toilet giant, came out with Wellyou II, which automatically measures the user's urine sugar levels by making a collection with a little spoon held by a retractable mechanical arm.
Whether a home medical center or a Zen space for meditation, the toilet of the future probably will emerge from laboratories like the ones in Nara at the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.
Users of the Matsushita toilet can program it to preheat or pre-cool a bathroom at a specific time at a set temperature. For owners who may not be so regular, it allows users to set the temperature and pressure of a water jet spray used to wash and massage the buttocks, an enormously popular feature in Japan.
Toilet jet sprays, which sometimes confuse foreign visitors with disastrous results, are now in nearly half of Japanese homes, a rate higher than that of personal computers.
In a country with the demographics of Florida, the real growth will be medical toilets linked to the Internet. "You may think a toilet is just a toilet, but we would like to make a toilet a home health measuring center," Matsui, the Matsushita engineer, said in a lecture in Nara. "We are going to install in a toilet devices to measure weight, fat, blood pressure, heartbeat, urine sugar, albumin and blood in urine."
The results would be sent from the toilet to a doctor by an Internet-capable cellular phone built into the toilet. Through long-distance monitoring, doctors could chart an elderly or invalid person's physical well-being. "We will have this within five years or so," said Harry Terai, director of home appliances research for Matsushita.
With nursing homes largely full in Japan, the number of older people under home care is rising fast, jumping by nearly one quarter just last year.
In Japan, most people see the doctor after they become ill," said Hironori Yamazaki, a Toto engineer. "With an eye to our demographic change, we are setting out to make the toilet a space for the early discovery of disease.".
But some civil libertarians are having nightmares about "smart toilets" running amok, e-mailing highly personal information hither and yon.
There are also Big Brother nightmares about master computers monitoring millions of bowel movements, checking around the clock to see who is constipated, who is not eating his peas and who is drinking too much.