Apr 06: Japan: Land of the Cyber-Toilet

Since I just wrote at some length about the Japanese medical system I suppose it’s as good a time as any to post a couple of photos I’ve been saving. Both of the hotels we’ve stayed in have rather elaborate toilets. My description of and commentary on these devices will require a descent into bathroom humor, literally. You may skip this post if you suspect it will offend your sensitive nature.

Ah, still reading, are you? Good.

Before we left on this journey we read up a bit on Japanese bathrooms. Part of the story is that Japanese toilets are different than Western toilets. They’re more like a trough you squat over than a bowl you sit on. So far I haven’t encountered one but Tracie has successfully made use of two of them. Western-style toilets are proliferating, however, and can be found throughout the country.

The more interesting part of the story–at least for those of us with an innate fascination with gadgets of all sorts–is that it has become increasingly popular to install seats on Western-style toilets that have all sorts of bells and whistles. They feature things like heated seating areas, little nozzles that spray cleansing water, electronic devices that play music and/or emit sounds to obscure embarassing noises emitted by the occupant, and so on.

Since we’re staying in rather nice hotels the bathrooms are fitted with appropriately upscale commodes. In an attempt to provide up-close and personal coverage of our adventures in Japan, I photographed them. Here’s the one from our hotel in Tokyo:

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From right to left the controls are an intensity knob for the sprayer, a couple of status LEDs whose function I believe was labeled only in Japanese, a pink button labeled BIDET with an icon of a woman suspended above a fountain, a pale green button labeled SHOWER with the same fountain icon but nothing else, and finally the red STOP button. It is important to make use of the STOP button before standing up if you have pressed either of the other buttons. Since we had just arrived in the country and were easing our way into cultural immersion neither of us managed to summon the courage to actually try any of these features. We did learn to use the STOP button, though. As soon as you sat down on this unit, it started making a loud hissing or gurgling sound as if it were preparing to deliver an uplifting jet of water upon command of either the SHOWER or BIDET buttons. Or this may have been its embarassing-sound camouflague system. In any case it was sort of disruptive. Pressing the STOP button made it lapse back into ordinary-toilet silence. We both developed the reflex of stabbing the STOP button upon seating ourselves.

The unit here in Takayama is newer and more elaborate:

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It’s not visible in this photo but the brand name is TOTO. Yes, sit on one of these and you’ll definitely know that you’re not in Kansas any longer. I took a close-up of its control panel:

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Notice the same array of buttons in the same order, although the SHOWER button is labeled SPRAY and its iconography is somewhat more explicit. Also notice the smaller buttons labeled OSCILLATING. These cause the nozzles to wave back and forth as they spray, presumably to provide greater coverage area and/or improve average accuracy. The status lights inform you whether or not the water has been warmed, whether the seat warmer is engaged (it’s turned on and off with a button hidden under the panel partially visible on the right), and whether the nozzles are performing their cleaning cycle which they do before each use. Yes, the last one says FREE ODOR. No need to bring your own odor, this toilet provides it for free. Another feature that puts this one a cut above the one in Tokyo is a failsafe feature that prevents the nozzles from operating if no-one is seated.

Curiosity finally compelled me to make a seated test of this wonder of electronically assisted plumbing. It’s pretty much what you’d guess: you press the SPRAY button and it sprays water at your butt. The WATER PRESSURE knob adjusts the intensity of the spray from barely a trickle to My My, Now That’s Got My Attention. I’ve asked Tracie to test the use of the BIDET button since clearly it’s not aimed at a male user, but she hasn’t been feeling very adventurous since we arrived here and has asked permission to submit her report later.

Overall it seems like a fairly good idea, although one has to wonder about the long-term maintenance and durability of the fixture. The underside of the seat has warnings about not standing on the seat because doing so may break it, although it’s probably not a good idea to stand on any toilet seat in any bathroom. Is there a demonstrable need for inverted showers in toilets? You’d have to ask someone in a line of work different than my own. On the other hand, there wasn’t really a demonstrable need for, say, the Sony Walkman before it was invented by the Japanese and those caught on in the U.S. like wildfire. Who knows, maybe the bionic toilet will be the next great import from Japan.

On a closely related note, Japanese toilet paper isn’t perforated the same way as American TP. It’s perforated in rectangles rather than squares, i.e. it’s as if every other perforation is missing. It took me awhile to figure out why I was consistently tearing the stuff in the wrong place.

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