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    Civilization reaches a new peak

    Many’s the time I’ve sat on our toilet, patted its little control arm, and sighed, “O faithful ultramodern Washlet, you spray and dry and warm me faithfully at my command, and yet I feel among the world’s poor because you never play me soothing music.” Apparently, all that could change. This is one of the Mainichi‘s photo essay thingies, so I’m not sure whether the link will last, but clicking on the following graphic should get you to the original:


    I think kitsch devotees have pretty much told the world about Japanese electronic toilet seats, but if you’ve not heard: a lot of private houses and more upscale office buildings have them. There’s a seat heater (most Japanese bathrooms are unheated, so this is very useful in winter), a bidet, a butt-cleaning spray (warmed to your specifications), and a warmed-air drier. Many of the newer ones also have an air freshener. Toto is, to my knowledge, the market leader, if it does not, in fact, have a monopoly.

    One of the ironies of our apartment–from my American perspective–is that you can set the toilet seat’s jets to expel water at your tenderer membranes that’s hot enough to seriously scald them…but the sink at which you’re supposed to wash your hands afterward gives you only cold water. On the other hand, as a lover of baths (the English genes, maybe?), I am completely smitten by the bathroom. The control panel for the tub looks like something you’d find in a cockpit. To run a bath, you put the drain plug in and push the “On” button; if you keep the plug in out of habit, and you have the water level and temperature settings to your liking, you can turn it on from the kitchen. Either way, it fills and beeps when it’s done.

    This kind of system is designed, of course, to go with the traditional Japanese practice of taking baths at night, family member by family member from grandfather on down to the baby, using the same water. Everyone showers and lathers and rinses clean, then just uses the (wonderfully hot) bathwater to soak in for a while. Except in the middle of summer, when the slightest bit of standing water turns scummy practically overnight, the water is kept for a few days and reheated. Accordingly, there’s another setting you use for 追い焚き (oidaki: “lighting the subsequent fire [under the cauldron]”).

    It’s funny how you get used to these things, to the point that going back to the way you grew up is a shock. Whenever I’m at my parents’ place, I have to remind myself that I can’t just walk away from the whooshing taps and expect them to shut off when the tub is full. And that if I leave the water in when I’m done, my little brother will ask me just what I think I’m doing. (Well, I think his actual comment was, “What, are you thinking of buying a turtle, or something?” Everybody’s a comedian.)

    Returning to Toto’s new technological gift to civilization, I suppose I don’t mind that it can expel scents at you–by this point, one is all too accustomed to using bathrooms that have been contrived to smell like scratch-and-sniff stickers. That “soothing music” worries me, though, given Japan’s track record. It’s very common here to, for example, call a major corporation, be put on hold, and have a toy-synth version of “The Entertainer” or “Hungarian Dance No. 5″ played at you. I can only hope that the “Off” button for the music is easily recognizable for those of us who prefer to commune with ourselves silently.

    Added on 3 February: Eric also has tubs on the brain, largely because he no longer has one on his deck. In his case, of course, the subject is a hot tub, which strict Mid-Atlantic parents like mine regarded, in the Love Boat era, as a frothing symbol of hedonistic California excess.

    I didn’t mention in the original post here, of course, anything about Japan’s famed devotion to hot springs, which aren’t hot tubs but serve the same sort of purpose (assuming you just want to bathe). I like hot-spring bathing in the winter, with the cold air and stars above while most of your body is submerged in sulfurating heat. Mostly, though, I prefer the bath at home, which has a glass of white wine and Dusty Springfield playing. You can’t really get away with sinking in languidly and sighing, “Oh, Mary Catherine, it’s true–the others have no idea what you and I suffer” in public, even if you have a folded towel on your head.

    10 Responses to “Civilization reaches a new peak”

    1. John says:

      The wife did research on this market while we were in Japan – Toto has about a 75% market share. They even sell in the US, but at 2 -3 times the price in Japan, which is already not che@p.
      Our bathroom had the control panel on an armrest-like appendage. It beeped different tones for the different buttons. One of our cats liked to stand on it, pressing buttons at random with his paws – I guess he liked the “music”. I treated the thing like an IED because when I got home from work I never knew what setting the fuzz-brain had left it on.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Yeah, you don’t want to be pressing the o-shiri button all sanguine-like if any quadripeds in your household could have turned the water temperature down to Jimmy Carter levels, huh? Not exactly how you dream of ending a hard day at the office.
      I didn’t know Toto (or anyone else) had stockists in the US, though I have no trouble believing the one there is charges several times the normal price.

    3. John says:

      Toto is the largest maker of toilets of any kind (Japanese or “American” style) in the world, if memory serves me.

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      Aren’t most of the toilets you see in the States made by…American Standard, is it? Not that that means you’re wrong, it’s just that it’s not impossible to imagine a global brand that happens not to be available in the US.

    5. John says:

      Yeah, I thought AS was bigger, too, but there are a lot of butts outside America (Toto is the largest “luxury toilet” seller in China). Toto is indeed the largest plumbing manufacturer in the world:

    6. Sean Kinsell says:

      “…there are a lot of butts outside America….”
      Not that they get anywhere to sit on the traditional toilets here.

    7. Simon World says:

      Asia by Blog

      Asia by Blog is a twice weekly feature providing links to Asian blogs and their views on the news in this fascinating region. Previous editions can be found here. This edition contains partially trusted lawyers, Korean-Japan football, gold-plated Chine…

    8. John says:

      Yeah, travelling through Asia is a kind of toilet lottery, isn’t it? Am I going to get Western, Eastern Squat, or slit trench this time?

    9. Eric Scheie says:

      Thanks for the link! I’m now thinking about the original historic toilet in this place — and asking questions like “Who s(h)at here?”
      And I’ll never forget the little sinks in the tank tops of Japanese toilets. Americans lack imagination. (At least their tank tops do!)

    10. Sean Kinsell says:

      Unless Timothy Leary was a man of abnormal self-control, presumably he did.
      We don’t have one of the toilets with the tiny sink on the tank, but, of course, I have lots of friends who have turned theirs into miniature rock gardens or artificial-aquarium-things. An old friend of Atsushi’s has variously-mutilated Barbie dolls in his, which, I may tell you, is a very effective incentive to do the deed and be out quickly.
      It doesn’t much help you rinse your hands, though. Then, too, the sink (in the counter, where you’d expect to see it) in our toilet seems to have been designed specifically to be not quite big enough to wash the hands in without splashing water all over.