In February, bidet-type commodes equipped with built-in washers and pre-warmed seats made news after Japan’s media reported that they were enjoying heady demand by Chinese tourists visiting Japan during the lunar new year holiday.
The reaction to this in Beijing’s state-run media was largely negative. The Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with the Communist Party organ People’s Daily, protested tourists misplaced priorities in a commentary titled “Popularity of Japanese toilet seats overstated.”
The writer denounced such purchases as “making a mockery of China’s boycott of Japanese goods” and complained that “Chinese tourists swamping Japanese stores “at a time when the country is facing a sluggish domestic demand is certainly not something to be proud of.”
But politics aside, if one Japanese inventor has his way, Japan’s high-tech toilets may soon be able to offer users — in China as well as Japan — a revolutionary new function. Nagoya-based Arai Industries K.K., a small manufacturer that produces pipe joints, gaskets and other plumbing materials, has taken out a patent on an idea that promises to turn the industry completely on end: a kit that enables bidet-type commodes to be easily and inexpensively converted to a compact shower stall.
“One thing that struck me about the fixtures of ‘Washlet’ type toilets, was the fact that they were considerably overengineered,” Kiyoshi Arai, the company’s president and CEO told The Japan Times at an interview in his Nagoya office. “I figured it wouldn’t be all that difficult to expand on their functions.”
Through trial and error, Arai developed his prototype mostly from spare parts laying around in his factory.
“The key to modification was boost the wattage of the water heating element,” he says. “After that, it was a snap.”
Arai has taken out seven utility patents on his new invention, and registered the trademark “Bathlet.”
His original version, completed in just two months, worked without any hitches but sorely fell short in aesthetic appeal, Arai admits.
“The most serious shortcoming was that it could only supply enough warm water for a one-minute shower, and that didn’t allow enough time for the user to soap up and rinse. So I added a more powerful water heating element that gave about five minutes — maybe a little longer in the summer.”
Arai estimates that if used for one five-minute shower per day, the Bathlet will add approximately ¥280 to a household’s monthly electric bill. On the other hand, however, it’s notoriously stingy with water.
“I decided that making it ‘eco-friendly’ would be a strong selling point — hence the recycling tank and gravity pump, which redirects shower water back to the toilet tank to be reused for flushing,” he explained. “This led to problems at first, because the spout on the bidet kept blowing soap bubbles. We fixed that using microfiber filtration,” Arai smiled.
“The current design is as close to being idiot-proof as possible,” Arai said, chuckling with pride. “Any competent plumber can have it up and running in about half an hour.”
Because tampering with the original commode’s design risks invalidating the warranty, Arai is keen on lining up Japanese manufacturers to market the “Bathlet” as an optional accessory. He has yet to announce a domestic price for his product, but is aiming for under ¥12,000.
With many overseas markets faced with chronic water shortages, Arai believes prospects for exports are “extremely encouraging.”
“We received hundreds of inquiries when we introduced a prototype at the Home Fixtures ’15 trade show in Shanghai two weeks ago,” Arai said.
Arai Industries’ “Bathlet” is just one of a slew of new inventions from Japan designed to appeal to growing numbers of affluent Chinese visitors. Prototypes introduced at a recent trade fair in Makuhari included an electric rice cooker that can be used to steam rou baozi (pork buns) and shaomai (dumplings); for fastidious gamblers, Sani-Pai, an ultrasonic cleaner for sanitizing mahjong tiles after use; and an electric kettle that whistles the first six notes of “The East is Red” to signal the user when the water has boiled.