Global Economics

Potty Talk from Japan


The country's love of gadgets and its obsession with cleanliness have taken toilets high-tech

Most people might find it disturbing to have a toilet talk to them. Not so in Japan, the home of the futuristic commode. The country's toilets are now packed with enough high-tech wizardry to rival a James Bond movie. They have infrared sensors, microprocessors, and light-emitting diodes. The upscale ones will deodorize the room, play music to drown out unwanted noise, spray your buttocks, cleanse the bowl, and close the lid after you're done.

And, yes, some even talk. In the bathrooms at Tokyo Station, the toilets will remind you there's no need to flush. That's done for you automatically after you stand up to leave.

Since the late 1970s, Japanese researchers have been on a mission to build a better toilet. Back then, squat-toilets were as common as the Western-style ones. Now, in homes, offices, and even public facilities it's the high-tech variety that's stealing market share from the old-fashioned manual push-flush. That has meant steady business in Japan's $625-million market for Toto, Inax, and other manufacturers.

Lost in Translation

One sign of the progress they've made: Of the 3.5 million toilets sold annually, three in five now sport high-tech features, according to industry stats. Less successful are manufacturers' attempts to attract buyers overseas, where it's rare to find a place to plug a toilet in, and there isn't the same obsession with spotless bathrooms as in Japan. Overseas sales account for just 10% of Toto's total annual sales.

Japan's mass-market craze for robo-toilets can be traced to Toto's legendary Washlet. Inspired by the U.S.-made Wash Air Seat, it debuted in 1980 as an attachable seat with a built-in heater and jet-sprayer. The breakthrough came after Toto researchers discovered the optimal angle for sprayers—43 degrees from horizontal—and dreamed up a catchy slogan (Oshiri datte arattehoshii, or "Even your buttocks want to be cleaned"). These days it's common to hear Japanese refer to any high-tech toilet as a Washlet, the way Americans call tissues Kleenex and adhesive bandages Band-Aids.

Full Service

What's driving the innovation? Japan's love for gadgetry, of course. To the Japanese, it makes perfect sense: If you can stick a chip in a TV or a cell phone or a fridge, why not a toilet? Japan's manic culture of cleanliness has helped, as has the shrewd move by toilet companies years ago to transform the toilet into a luxury item. "There's a saying in Japan that if you keep your toilet clean you'll have beautiful, healthy children," says Junichi Hirata, vice-president of the Japan Toilet Assn.

You'd be surprised at what toilets can do—and how much they cost. Japanese builder Daiwa House and Toto occupy the extreme high end of the market with their $4,800 "Intelligence Toilet" bathroom unit, available since February . It doubles as your personal in-house doctor. Urinate into the bowl and a tiny receptacle on a mechanical retractable rod tests a sample for high sugar levels.

Wrap it Up

And while you sit there's a monitor stashed near the toilet-paper roll for you to check your blood pressure. It's a good idea in a country where 20.4% of the population is over 65. In time, elderly patients could simply sit on the loo and the medical data would be sent to a nurse or doctor across town.

Another type of toilet that targets the elderly comes from Tokyo-based Nihon Safety. Its soon-to-be-released $1,250 Wrappon is a porta-potty for nursing homes, where bathroom-cleanup duty can be the pits. To help lessen the mess, Wrappon captures waste in a diaper-like bag, and a remote-controlled contraption inside seals it.

Matsushita Electric Works' Alauno takes a different approach. For a cool $3,400, consumers can buy the ultimate self-cleaning bowl made of the same stain-resistant glass used for aquariums. The Gekiochi Baburu, or "Amazing Bubble," cleansing system relies on tiny air bubbles, a squirt of detergent, and the toilet's spiral-shaped siphon, which creates a whirlpool effect so the bowl gets a natural scrubbing as the water drains.

Beauty and the Beast

It's also a water conservationist's dream. Designer Naoto Fukasawa has done away with the tank so it uses just 5.7 liters (1.25 gallons) of water per flush. That's about a fifth of the amount that's used in a conventional toilet. And LEDs placed strategically at the foot of the toilet and inside the bowl make this unit easy to find in the dark.

Then there's the Beauty model produced by Matsushita Electric Work's parent, Matsushita Electric Industrial (MC), which has retailed for $1,150 since November. The company had the cleaning staff in mind with this toilet's "etiquette point" lamp, a dot of light that acts as a guide for men who can't always find their mark and minimizes the need to clean up later. Once you're done, just stand up and go and a sensor shuts the lid and flushes for you.

So what's the next big thing in toilets? That's an open question. What's certain is that the toilet's lowly days are past. As researchers add more chips, sophisticated robotics, and wireless tech to new models, it's not hard to imagine the day when you'll talk to your toilet and it will talk back. We're already halfway there.

Click here for a slide show of high-tech toilets.

Hall is BusinessWeek's technology correspondent in Tokyo . Tashiro is a correspondent for BusinessWeek based in Tokyo.

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