KITAKYUSHU, Japan — Japan gave the world the Walkman and the PlayStation and karaoke. But the thing Japan is really proud of: the Washlet, the high-tech, derriere-washing, tushie-warming toilet.
So much so that Toto, the maker of the beloved Washlet, has built a $60 million museum devoted to it here on the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands.
Designed to celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary in 2017, the museum has already welcomed 30,000 visitors in the three months that it’s been open. On a recent day, large groups of men in suits were being shown through the galleries, listening attentively to their guide.
The museum has thousands of items on display, charting the evolution of the Japanese toilet from the ceramic squatters of the 19th century to Toto’s renowned Washlet, a toilet seat with a built-in bidet. It’s the convergence point for Japan’s attention to personal hygiene, its commitment to providing good hospitality (going to a bathroom with a Washlet helps people relax, Toto says) and its technological expertise.
This month, Toto shipped its 40 millionth Washlet.
“The Washlet is so popular in Japan, but unfortunately we don’t see it in Canada,” said Mami Yoshida, who visited the museum during a trip home with her husband after a decade living in Montreal. “I think that [Western] people are missing out on such an innovative product, such a cool gadget. And I wanted to impress my husband, so we decided to come here.”
In the museum, Toto is displaying multiple generations of the Washlet, from the first rudimentary model with cords and dials, launched in 1980, to the top-of-the-line Neorest.
The core of the Washlet is the bidet system that’s built into the seat, which sprays every — ahem — nook and cranny. These are standard in Japanese homes but also in many restaurants and public buildings, from subway stations to government offices.
But the newest models don’t stop at washing. They have seat warmers. They let the user control water temperature and pressure. Some have a water massage function and a warm air dryer.
In public restrooms, there’s often a “power deodorizer” function, and many play a flushing music — called “otohime,” literally “sound of a princess” — to mask any embarrassing noises.
Some have automatic sensors, so they lift the seat cover when a person approaches the toilet, and they spray an antibacterial water into the illuminated bowl so you know it’s clean.
The Washlet has proven popular in bottom-bathing cultures, such as the Middle East, and it’s not unusual to see Chinese tourists with two or three Washlet boxes stacked on their carts checking in at Tokyo’s main airport.
But Japanese toilets have not exactly taken off in the West. Toto is promoting Washlet loos in the United States and now has showrooms in Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago, with another opening soon in New York.
In the United States, this technology isn’t cheap. The most simple Washlet — a toilet seat with in-built bidet — costs $599, while the top-of-the-line Neorest toilet retails for $6,500. Plus, you need a power outlet next to the potty.
Also on display: one of the extra-wide, extra load-bearing toilets Toto makes for sumo wrestling stadiums, restrooms from the Japanese parliament and a “module” bathroom from a Tokyo hotel, built to be plonked into a hotel room during the building boom before the 1964 Olympics. There’s even the bathroom suite used by Douglas MacArthur, the American general who oversaw the occupation of Japan after World War II.
There are some funny exhibits, too, such as the “Toto talk” motorbike that toured the country powered by biogas (yes, that’s what you think it is).
Indeed, toilets are a hot topic here.
The government this year launched the Japan Toilet Prize, part of a campaign to improve quality of life by improving the quality of restrooms. No matter that Japanese public facilities are usually spotless.
The task is to ensure that washrooms are always clean and safe and to tackle one of the thorniest of bathroom problems: how to reduce the lines outside ladies’ lavatories.
The government links its toilet campaign with another key initiative: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal to “let women shine” and increase their participation in Japan’s lackluster economy.
"Without appropriate environments where women can use sanitation facilities, their access to social participation in schools and workplaces is restricted,” Haruko Arimura, the Japanese minister for women’s empowerment, told the government's “World Assembly of Women” forum in Tokyo in August.
In fact, she said that restrooms are so pivotal to women’s advancement that she doesn’t mind if she’s known as “minister of toilets.”
Akito Yokoyama, an architect who’s part of the toilet challenge project, said Arimura had explained why she wanted to concentrate on restrooms.
“Women are unable to bring themselves to enter filthy toilets in public parks,” she quoted Arimura as saying, according to the Shukan Shincho magazine. “To enable women who work outside the home to thrive, it’s necessary to improve the environment in public toilets.”
Helping women “shine” is a catchphrase for Abe, to describe his effort to improve Japan’s dismal gender equality rankings — and making washrooms better, he said at the same forum, would help to do just that.
“In terms of sanitation, toilets are a way to encourage women’s participation in society, and there is a lot more Japan can do,” he said, according to reports from the conference. “Japan has very advanced technology in terms of toilets in particular.”