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Tuesday, July 21, 2007


Views from the loo queues

Special to The Japan Times

'DO NOT TO DAMAGE THE TOILET," an irremovable warning reads on Toto's TCF583M model — and who would dare? I set out to answer this question in a series of interviews in Tokyo.

The TCF583M is Japan's hottest bowl, literally. This high-tech model comes prepackaged with warm seats for frosty winter mornings. But heat is just the tip of the iceberg. The thrones designed by Toto include features such as recorded sounds to mask vociferous farts, remote controls (theoretically, you can take a break and flush from the couch), bidet jets, antibacterial plastics, perfumed sprays and water fountains for hand cleansing.

Toto's market foothold isn't a small niche of well-to-do neurotics. The company line appears everywhere — from Tokyo arcades to discos to karaoke plazas. But these latrines can be notoriously confusing for foreigners.

"I don't use the new toilets," confided film critic Donald Richie, a long-term resident of Tokyo. "I don't want to get the boiling water when I press for the hot air."

Others have not been so cautious. For instance, Renate Suzuki, lecturer in economics at Sophia University, took a rest from calculations to recall past trauma.

"I'm battle-scarred," said Suzuki. "I was once shot in the face, not being able to read the buttons."

Rachel Tandy, a freckly Austrian high school exchange student, also had cause for complaint. "The toilets are too warm," she said. "It feels used — like someone else had been sitting on it before you."

I suspect that in the middle of February, Ms. Tandy might have taken a different position on the matter. Nevertheless, an American who has taught in Tokyo for three decades — 36 Februaries — never warmed up to the porcelain. That he was frank about, but he refused to give a name. So let's call him "John."

"Ehh, I don't like the machines," said John. "But my Japanese wife loves them."

John's spouse isn't alone. "The Toto seat is part of my routine," said Kahoru Mukita, senior manager at a cigarette import-export firm. "I can't use a toilet without a bidet."

Takako Ando, a pigtailed stockbroker, concurred.

"For me the warmth is necessary. In the winter I must have one."

"You must?"

"Yes, but they are everywhere so it's no problem," she explained.

Ando and Mukita's attitudes were typical of the responses I got from Japanese interviewees. Virtually 100 percent seemed to love their high-tech bowls.

Tourists in Japan were split down the middle. In a queue for an evening kabuki performance, a blushing Carol Smith from Connecticut praised the fart-disguising faux flush. "I like the noise button. It prevents me from feeling self-conscious."

Carol's friend, however, disagreed.

"The toilets are confusing — too many switches."

Astra Strobel, a vacationing Web site designer, had nothing but praise for the bidet.

"It's remarkable," gushed Strobel. "I don't understand how we in the United States can be so advanced but our toilets medieval."

Initially, "medieval" seemed too harsh a word. So what if Americans don't flush with remote controls? However, after more thought I found myself close to agreement with Strobel for two reasons.

First, our lower quadrant, of course, contains lurking fecal matter that toilet paper rubs into the pores. Second, environmentally speaking, the wads and wads of paper flushed could be conserved by Japanese bidets. Maybe, just maybe, the technology presents a new degree of cleanliness and eco-consciousness.

So if you're bored waiting for a hybrid car, you might consider making an environmental difference in the bathroom. Why not park on Toto's exclusive line? Showrooms are now stocking the Guinevere Collection.

"Art Deco and Victorian design influences converge to redefine the meaning of sanctuary," the English-language brochure says of the new model, "while creating a space that reflects regal splendor with a whisper of romance."

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