Where Even the Toilet Is High-Tech
There's a scene in the sci-fi film Demolition Man where Sylvester Stallone's character-a cryogenically frozen cop thawed in the year 2032-elicits laughter when he tries to use the restroom but can't find any toilet paper. In the future, people no longer require bathroom tissue to clean themselves. In many parts of urban Japan, that future is now.
Walk into a restroom at the opulent Omotesando Hills mall or the chic Matsuya department store in Tokyo's famed Ginza district, and you'll be struck by what you don't hear: the rattling of toilet paper being unspooled in the stall next door. That's because there's a new generation of toilets in place that clean you top to, er, bottom with a retractable, self-cleaning wand that shoots a jet of warm water. You control the temperature, pressure, and direction of that water with a keypad. Press another button, and the toilet dries you off with a blast of warm air.
Even though these toilets-made by companies such as Toto, Inax, and Matsushita Electric-cost $500 to $5,000, millions of Japanese families have installed them in their homes. Toto has sold more than 20 million of these toilets since 1980, and industrywide nearly 3 million of them are sold every year.
But these are more than toilets: They're like servants, raising their heated seats and lighting up when you enter the bathroom. Some automatically flush and then lower the seat and lid, so you don't have to touch anything.
Many of the toilets will offer a choice of preprogrammed sounds to mask any undesirable noises (fake flushing sounds seem to be most popular, but chirping birds are also a crowd pleaser). Another feature is automatic deodorizers that use activated oxygen to remove odors at a molecular level. The most sophisticated of these toilets will even monitor your weight, blood pressure, urine sugar content, and body fat-and send the data to your computer.
For Americans, it might seem intimidating. But don't knock it, says W. Hodding Carter, author of Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization. For research, he purchased a Washlet, the most popular line of these toilets, for his Maine home three years ago. "I shouldn't say this, but sitting on that toilet is actually one of my favorite things of the day now," he says.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.