In Energy-Stingy Japan, an Extravagant Indulgence: Posh Privies
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
TOKYO -- When it comes to saving energy, the Japanese have much to teach the United States and other rich countries, whose leaders descend on Japan next month for a Group of Eight summit.
Energy consumption per person here is about half that in the United States, and the growth of greenhouse gas emissions is slower than anywhere in the industrialized world.
There is a hiccup, though, in this world-beating record. It happens inside the Japanese home, where energy use is surging. And nothing embodies the surge quite like the toilet -- a plumbing fixture that has been reengineered here as an ultracomfy energy hog.
Japanese toilets can warm and wash one's bottom, whisk away odors with built-in fans and play water noises that drown out potty sounds. They play relaxation music, too. "Ave Maria" is a favorite.
High-end toilets can also sense when someone enters or leaves the bathroom, raising or lowering their lids accordingly. Many models have a "learning mode," which allows them to memorize the lavatory schedules of household members.
These always-on electricity-guzzlers (keeping water warm for bottom-washing devours power) barely existed in Japan before 1980. Now, they are in 68 percent of homes, accounting for about 4 percent of household energy consumption. They use more power than dishwashers or clothes dryers.
"For hygiene-conscious Japanese, the romance with these toilets is equivalent to the American romance with the Hummer," said Philip Clapp, deputy managing director of the environmental group at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington.
Toilets with built-in warmers for bottom-washing first arrived in Japan in the 1970s. They were U.S.-made medical devices for hemorrhoid sufferers. But they took off, becoming the most profitable innovation in the modern history of Japanese bathrooms, according to toiletmakers.
The Japanese are serious about cleanliness. The word for clean -- kirei -- is also a word for beautiful. People often sweep the street in front of their house. They remove their shoes upon entering a house. They shower before bathing. They are sensitive to odors. For all these needs, aversions and desires, super toilets fit the bill, as well as catering to the Japanese love of gadgets.
In addition, Japanese houses are often small and, in the winter, chilly. A warm, comfortable, musical and hygienic seat in the bathroom expands living space.
But as with a Hummer, romance with a high-end toilet is not cheap. Luxury models cost up to $4,000 -- plus at least $2.50 a month per toilet in higher electricity bills.
But unlike the Hummer, which few Americans are now buying and which General Motors may soon stop making, romance with toilets continues to bloom in Japan, albeit with the intensive mediation of government energy watchdogs, who have begun to monitor the behavior of the toilet-smitten masses.