Flush With Success

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 14, 2006

KITAKYUSHU, Japan

Darting through the 3:30 p.m. passenger rush at a new airport here, a hurried 35-year-old in a gray business suit made a beeline for the men's room. Heading for the nearest open stall, Kyoji Asada threw aside his briefcase and quickly got down to business -- a spot inspection of the toilet bowl.

For more than a decade as a top designer for Japan's bathroom appliance giant Toto Ltd., Asada has been responsible for developing the Rolls Royces of porcelain thrones. There are toilets with heated seats. Toilets with cleansing water sprays and drying-action air blasts. Toilets with built-in deodorizers and soothing river sounds to cover up embarrassing smells and sounds.

"Going to the toilet should be about relaxation, comfort and cleanliness," he said. "I strongly believe the Japanese have the cleanest and most comfortable toilets in the world."

He is here to make sure of that. During his 50- to 60-hour workweeks, random bathroom inspections are one way Asada keeps himself and Toto's first-rate team of toilet engineers on their toes. "I often do this at friends' houses or when I'm a dinner guest," said the man Japanese newspapers have dubbed "the Toilet Geek." "I seize the opportunity whenever I can."

The bathrooms at the two-month-old Kitakyushu International Airport in southwestern Japan contain some of Toto's newest, top-of-the-line toilets -- elegant egg-shaped units that seem to hover above the ground.

During his first chance to get up close and personal with them since installation, Asada's passion for his job overflowed. "We developed them without a base. Their pipes attach from their backs directly into the wall," he explained with excitement, caressing the toilet with his hand. "With nothing underneath, you can see how easy it is for someone to wipe the floor. It makes a bathroom easy to keep spotless."

He lifted the toilet seat and winced at a few drops of seepage dried underneath. "This is what these visits are all about," he said. "I'll report back to the team that we need to find a method to keep this cleaner."

As Asada shared his theories on toilets with the three people with him, two women and a foreign reporter, an elderly man burst through the men's room door, reaching for his zipper. Startled by the gathering inside, he turned on his heels in search of more tranquil facilities.

Bathrooms, Asada explained an hour later en route to Toto's factory labs in the heart of this city of 1 million, are accorded a special place in Japan. In a cramped society, toilets offer a rare form of personal escape and, these days, a chance for a refreshing wash. In two decades, Toto has sold more than 20 million of its electronic Washlets -- high-tech toilet lids with bidet-like sprayers first inspired by a short-lived American invention for hemorrhoid sufferers. Washlets are now almost ubiquitous in Japan, a fact Asada credits to the national obsession with hygiene.

A Japanese proverb says that pregnant women who keep their toilets sparkling clean will give birth to attractive babies. The Japanese word for clean -- kirei -- is the same as the word for beautiful. Japanese almost always use moist towelettes to wipe their hands before meals. "Why shouldn't it apply to other places on the body?" Asada said.

Around 4 p.m., he walked through a line of freshly kilned urinals on the Toto factory floor, heading toward the test unit for his pièce de résistance , the Neo Rest. After listening to feedback from housewives ashamed about the unsightly marks they occasionally left inside toilet bowls, Asada invented a unit fitted with a tornado-like flush and cleaning cycle that wipes away all the evidence.

Other special features include music, a massage with pulses of warm water and built-in emitters of fragrance, including the scents of rose and cherry blossoms. Even with its $4,000 price tag, the Neo Rest has become one of Toto's hottest sellers.

Actor Will Smith became smitten during a 2004 trip to Japan; his staff later requested the stateside version from Toto's American division.

After running through tests of Toto's new easily cleanable porcelain, Asada passed through the company's toilet museum -- which includes an extra-wide seat of honor for sumo wrestlers -- on his way to the factory's top-secret research lab. There, he and his team are on a tight deadline to produce a new breakthrough in toilet technology. Even after the factory's 5 p.m. whistle blew, Asada's technicians were busy observing flushing action on artificial human waste in an experimental model. Soon, Asada would roll up his shirt sleeves and join them. But he refused to discuss the new toilet, citing jealously guarded trade secrets.

"Maybe we can't build the perfect toilet," he said, showing his guests out of the factory. "But we can build the toilet that no one has yet imagined. That is our mission."


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