Toilet Culture: The Bizarre Rise of Japan’s High Tech Toilets
Tranquility is not a word most people would use to describe their time in a public bathroom. Disgust? Sure. Awkwardness? Maybe. Shame? On occasion. But people might change their tune if they sat in a Tokyo department store bathroom, cheeks to climate-controlled seat, atop the Toto Washlet C100 — a $600 toilet. Quite frankly, the experience is sublime, which makes you wonder: how did the West miss out on this porcelain epiphany?
For those of you those not yet indoctrinated into the Washlet faith, let me explain. While the West is still stuck in the dark ages of toilet culture, in the last 30 years Japan has witnessed a profusion of high-tech toilet wizardry — led mostly by one brand, Toto’s Washlet. And it’s been a game changer. Want to lift the seat but not get your hands dirty? No problem, just push a button. Is the seat too cold for your sensitive behind? Well, there’s a button for that too. Built-in bidet? Check. Automatic deodorizer? Check. Flush with the click of a button? Check.
All of this amounts to a better bathroom experience, one that’s cleaner and more comfortable than your normal private time. And the Japanese people seem to think so, too, with the Wall Street Journal estimating that 70% of Japanese homes have a Washlet installed.
Surprisingly, though, the Washlet is an American invention, one originally designed and marketed towards hospitals and nursing homes. But as the toilet has since gained widespread popularity in the Japanese home, its success in the US has been less than stellar, with sales barely scratching, Toto claims, “several thousand” a month. All of which raises the question: How did an American toilet conquer a foreign nation, but not its own? As it turns out, it all has to do with Japan’s bizarre mix of consumerism and imperialism.
In 1868 Japan saw its sitting regime thrown under the bus, ushering in the Meiji era with a more centralized government and a more Western sensibility. The new government even modeled its constitution after Prussia’s. But these top-down changes took time to trickle down to the masses, and according to historian Andrew Gordon, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that Japan saw all the hallmarks of Western consumerism: a fascination with the educated middle class, a move towards salaried jobs, and an explosion of branded goods peddled through new avenues, like department stores and magazines.
But this influx of Western goods and ideas created a new kind of cultural conflict in Japan. The clash was centered on the growing sense of a “ni-ju seikatsu,” or “double life.” On one hand, the Japanese government actively encouraged the adoption of Western values, with one program, the League to Reform Everyday Life, regularly hosting lectures and churning out pamphlets to bring Japan in line with Western cultural practices. On the other, prominent writers of the time like Jun’ichirō Tanizaki lamented the seeming loss of national identity, giving rise to the “Nihon Kaiki” or “Return to Japan” literary movement. Incidentally, Tanizaki also singled out the traditional Japanese bathroom as a beacon of Japanese cultural superiority, writing in Praise of Shadows that “The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet is truly a place of spiritual repose.”
Tanizaki’s novel, Naomi, provided the clearest depiction of this cultural clash. In the book, the narrator becomes obsessed with the titular Naomi — the embodiment of the “modan garu”, or the modern girl. Young, financially independent, and heavily interested in Western culture, the modern girl was the subject of heated debates within the country. While cultural purists called the trope “unnatural”, younger generations lauded the newfound sense of independence the archetype represented. Unsurprisingly, reactions to Naomi largely mapped this divide. In the book, the narrator becomes obsessed with Naomi’s Eurasian looks, Western interests, and headstrong nature. But once the two are married, the narrator finds himself in a loveless marriage — one in which Naomi holds all the power and takes on various Western lovers. Equal parts a story of female sexual empowerment and manipulation, Naomi gave rise to a generation that idolized the main character, while also garnering enough scorn to make its original publisher drop the serialized novel mid-run. It was, in other words, the double life in motion: a Japan divided between tradition and change, East and West.
Understanding and ultimately bridging this divide, however, is what drove the Washlet’s phenomenal success in Japan. As Andrew Gordon points out, Japan’s fixation with the double life shouldn’t be framed as a conversation of East vs. West, but rather of what constitutes “appropriately Japanese.” In other words, what Western ideas, products, and practices best fit with the Japanese cultural mindset?
Take McDonald’s, for example. Instead of wholeheartedly adopting America’s love for saturated fat, Japanese McDonald’s are sparkling clean and full of fast food variants on local cuisine — from teriyaki burgers to wasabi dipping sauce. And while many Western products have found less success than McDonald’s — like the dishwasher, which is only in 30% of Japanese homes — maybe none have quite succeeded like the Washlet.
In many ways, the Washlet was poised for breakout success in Japan because it spoke to the nation’s preoccupation with purity and cleanliness. Shintoism, Japan’s native faith, is full of rituals conducted for the purpose of cleansing peoples, places, and objects of kagare– often meaning evil spirits, but literally translating to “uncleanliness” or “defilement.” In fact, the early precursors to Japan’s popular onsens, or spas, were born out of Shinto temples erecting bathhouses for ritual purification. By the 1600’s the bathhouse had become a common commercial fixture in Japan.
But in the same way that Japan fixated on remaining clean, it also fastidiously avoided the opposite: the toilet. As sociologist Allen Chun explained in his paper, Flushing In the Future, traditional Japanese bathrooms were located in an outhouse detached from the main home, with special sandals used only for entering the toilet. Meanwhile, a host of Japanese euphemisms have been created to sanitize the space itself, with creative twists like the “snowy retreat” and the “back closet.” It’s like Roland Barthes famously said: “When written, shit doesn’t smell.” And while the bathroom has long since been integrated into the standard Japanese house, these terms, along with the sandals, remain.
Given this strong cultural penchant for cleanliness, it’s not entirely surprising that the Washlet took off in Japan. Early advertising for the Washlet almost exclusively promoted the hygienic aspects of the toilet, mostly in an effort to court women who wanted to avoid wiping. Usually these ads relied on images of young, sporty women looking visibly refreshed. According to Chun, some even included catchy taglines like: “As in brushing your teeth and washing your face, the era of washing your bottom has now arrived.”
Ridiculous catchphrases aside, such language subtly invoked the idea that the masses were dirty, and that by buying the Washlet they could be clean. This subtext, according to 20th century psychoanalyst Dominique Laporte, isn’t anything new. Commercial and state interests have always had a vested interest in controlling the language of all things shit. Boiled down to its basic components, the argument goes something along the lines of: “You are dirty, I am clean; therefore I should rule you.” Add in the corollary, “You must be clean like your ruler; therefore buy this toilet” and you can see how commercial interests also stake their claim. Whether it’s ancient Rome literally taxing urine, or Renaissance France singling out peasants with waste removal laws, discourse around the toilet has always advanced the interests of the powerful. Even when Tanizaki sung the praises of the “spiritual repose” afforded by the Japanese bathroom, he was referring to those found in upscale city residencies, where space permitted an outhouse.
While it’s weird to think that the Washlet’s success might have been helped by exploiting this bizarre subtext, it’s not that far of a stretch. After all, despite most of the very expensive Washlets being purchased by high-end restaurants and department stores, subsequent mass marketing pushes relied on educating the populace at large that they were dirty. According to Chun, one famous commercial even featured a young woman chastising a professor, saying, “No, never! A dirty lifestyle is not permissible, that’s what I’ve been taught!”
To really bring it full circle, though, what truly made the Washlet find mass acceptance was its reappropriation of the modern girl — the very symbol of the divided life. In the 1980’s, a famous actress, Togawa Jun, became the face of the Toto Washlet. Young, pretty, with a slightly demure disposition that could be fierce when needed, Togawa represented a fusion of traditional shyness and Western independence. And though Toto feared potential backlash from advertising a toilet — choosing not to air the air commercials during dinner time — the commercials were an unbridled success. Commercial after commercial aired, and in a series of what might seem to us increasingly hilarious catchphrases, one finally stuck: “Even though it’s a butt, it would like to be washed.” Over half a century later, the cultural trope that had caused Naomi’s initial publisher to drop the novel mid installment propelled a Western invention — a toilet no less — to mass acceptance.
It is, however, curious that the Washlet never took off in the West. After all, 20th century advertisers in America and Europe flexed some almost mythic might. Women have been convinced that armpit hair is gross, Hallmark has invented multiple holidays, Listerine created a “medical” condition for bad breath, and all of America watches the Super Bowl, ironically or not, for the commercials. Perhaps the Washlet, though, was never “appropriately” Western — that its heated seats felt just a little too uncomfortable, that its advertising didn’t jive with countries that tuned in to Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs week in and week out. We can’t be sure. Whatever the reason might be, though, one thing is for sure. If you want to experience some sublime potty time, you’ll have to go to Japan.