Japan: Perfecting Everyday Details & Reverse Culture Shock: Toto Shower-Toilets

Toto shower-toilet: The Japanese are quite inspiring at perfecting everyday details which may be why they have such an enviable high quality of life.  This collective effort shows in their high levels of public safety, their social etiquette, courtesy, pleasant customer service and efficient public transport. And one of the everyday details that they have not overlooked is their bathroom hygiene.

One of the understated rich-world technologies of the decade right now has to be the Japanese electronic toilet made by the Toto company.   Its quite a transformational product, like the difference between using a black & white or color TV.  If you were in prison and you only had the option to watch black & white you probably would.  But if you sat down on your couch and binged on back-to-back Will Ferrell comedies in color would you ever go back to watching black & white again?

My first Japanese toilet-shower experience and how it works: My first few days in Tokyo I was hesitant to fiddle with the electronic panel of the Toto toilet.  It’s tucked to the side like those hard-to-reach TV remote controls on your airplane seat.  My fear was that if I pressed the ‘water-spray button’ too long a fire-truck-pressure jet-stream would eject me off my seat and I’d have to run out of the bathroom of the Tsutaya café, with my drenched pants around my ankles in a disheveled panic and cry to the hip-Japanese baristas that something had gone terribly wrong in the bathroom.

The jetlag and initial Tokyo culture shock had worn off by Day 4 and I decided it was time to culturally immerse myself. You can Wikipedia and YouTube the logistics to see how it works, but in summary, after you have finished doing your business, you hold-down the ‘water-spray button’ and a tiny-cylindrical tube from inside the rear of the toilet basin sprays your tushy with a light jet-stream of lukewarm water, sort of like a mini-sideways shower.  There are no logistical glitches, unless you usually also do headstands or break-dance when you’re on the toilet-seat you should not get any water dripping down your pants, shirt or back.

Reverse culture shock and paradoxical hygiene Western habits:  After a month of Japanese toilet usage under my belt, going back to using a regular bathroom feels like I’m in a 19th century log-cabin in Transylvania.  Its a paradox how hygiene-freak we are in the West with our initial contact with food. We use hand sanitizer before we touch our food and right after we finish eating we brush our teeth thoroughly lest we get some bacteria in our molars.

Ironically though, something seems to go astray with our follow-through in the exit-session.  Maybe it’s the post-pasta sleepiness or our metabolism makes us a bit lazy and the collective Western psyche seems to think, “Hey its ok, there’s no one else in the bathroom to scold me for having the same toilet technique as my great-grandfather, Lucifer, so why fix something if it isn’t broken?”  And we continue to procrastinate this bathroom upgrade, like a software update we know we should do, but maybe some other time.

Start-up advice, marketing taboos and entering the western market:  In the bathroom hygiene department the cultural-evolution-chain of progress has missed a step in Europe and America.  A few months ago when I was visiting friends in the tech start-up scene, I heard mentors advise aspiring start-uppers when they were spinning their wheels on trivial business ideas to focus on real-world problems that actually hurt and that can have a positive impact on a huge portion of the market.  I would like to believe that several hundred million lackadaisically-cleaned rear-ends in the developed, rich-world is a problem that we should collectively start to deal with. Perhaps, a spic & span clean-ass campaign by 2030!

An entire nation of 130 million people has proven that this is not a fad, but is and should be a mainstream product, as it has been in Japan since the mid-1980s. Many Western celebrities and businesspeople that visit Tokyo swear by these things, yet marketeers and entrepreneurs have yet to figure out how to crack the tough Western market where such a topic is sort of taboo material.  I guess you don’t go up to someone and say, “So, are you going to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday? Yeah, hey by the way, how does your butt feel today?  That’s too bad, maybe you should try a Toto shower?  See you on Saturday for some pumpkin picking then!”

A worthwhile investment:  Totos retail for about a thousand bucks or if you want heated seats and other funky options a bit more.   They are slowly starting to pop-up in some offices in Silicon Valley and if you are in London, you can swing by my favorite magazine’s outpost, the Monocle Café, in Marylebone and give their Toto toilet a whirl.

And if you are considering doing a bathroom renovation, getting a gift for your family that will be much appreciated over the years, or giving your work colleagues a perk at the office, Toto should be on the back of your mind.  A cappuccino, a little granola, some rye toast with tangerine marmalade, BBC World News and a Tokyo-style toilet shower is a civilized, feel-like-a-million-bucks way to start any morning.