Japan’s toilet business flush with success

October 1st, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Whoo!: Washlet with wall control

Whoo!: Washlet with wall control

The flush toilet is one of those Western imports that Japanese industry has adapted to its own special needs and then improved. Though you’ll still find a lot of traditional Japanese toilets at older public facilities and in the countryside, the Washlet toilet, with that surprising little spray nozzle, has become so ubiquitous as to be a standard fixture in Japanese life.

Washlet is a registered brand name for Toto, which dominates the toilet bowl business in Japan, and though most histories of the Washlet start in the 1980s, spray function toilets (onsui senjo benza) have been around in one form or another since the 1960s, and number 2 Inax’s Shower Toilet seems to be actually older than the Washlet. With traditional Japanese toilets there is no contact between the person and the porcelain, and when Western toilet bowls first made their appearance here, Japanese were perplexed by the seat for various reasons. Some were concerned about hygiene, while others simply found them too cold. The first improvement the Japanese made was to heat the seat.

The spray function took a little longer to catch on, but once it did it became a huge moneymaker for Toto and Inax and all the other companies that eventually adopted the technology. According to a toilet industry survey 69 percent of all toilet bowls in Japan now have a spray attachment, and it’s said that anyone who grew up in the 1980s or thereafter can’t live without one. If you’re out and about, there are Web pages that tell you which public toilets have spray functions.

Last August there was a small article in the Asahi Shimbun written by one of the paper’s correspondents in the U.S. He doesn’t like American toilets and thinks American toilet paper is too rough. Spray toilets are available in America for the home, but when he’s on the road he has to do without, so he bought a portable toilet spray (keitai senjoki) device from an online retailer, which retail for about ¥10,000, though you can usually get them for about half that. Once while going through a metal detector at an airport he was asked by a security agent to explain what this strange device was and apparently it was so difficult for the agent to comprehend that the reporter had to demonstrate it. Last week, on an NHK program that compares cultures, one of the young female talent said she also owned a portable toilet spray. “I never leave home without it.”

One might characterize the Washlet craze as another facet of Japan’s storied Galapagos syndrome, but if the West still seems immune to the nozzle’s charms (Italy has none at all, in case you were interested; and even France, which invented the bidet, doesn’t seem to have any use for them), Asia isn’t. The spray toilet is reportedly becoming quite popular in South Korea and China. Toto started selling conventional toilets in China 30 years ago, and now half of its overseas sales are to China. An increasing portion are Washlets, which are mostly being installed by hotels.

In addition, Japanese toilets are designed to conserve water, which makes them even more popular in environmentally aware countries. Even India is becoming a boom market. Though Toto’s sales to the subcontinent only comprise 1 percent of all its overseas revenues, those sales are increasing yearly. The company estimates that its yearly overseas sales for spray and other types of toilets will exceed ¥150 billion by 2017, which is 2.5 times the overseas sales they enjoyed in 2008. The world is their toilet bowl.

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