From: Peter Rivard
Date: Wed Oct 9, 2002 11:44:27 PM Japan
To: Newsletter
Subject: You read it here first

Hi, all,

I send you, in its entirety, an article from the NY Times. Note, early on, the juxtaposition of the two lines I've changed to italics, and judge for yourself what they say about the Japanese (you won't be wrong, but in this instance, another cultural factor is at play--see note at end). Note, too, that most of these features are available not only in entire toilets, but in seats that can be added to any toilet (presumably not the medical analysis features and room air conditioning, though trying to find a toilet seat in Japan that isn't at least heated would be difficult). One last thing: for some of these ridiculous-seeming features, remember that the actual houses and bathrooms they're in are ridiculously primitive by western standards: no central AC and NO CENTRAL HEATING; before you install one of these marvels, a bathroom might be below freezing in winter or sweltering in summer. Final point to remember: toilet prices have FALLEN in the last few years, but they still go higher than those mentioned in this article. The author evidently didn't get out to the home center when he was here. For reference, my car, a Honda in great shape, was under $1000, a middle of the road price for toilets and not out of the price range of mere toilet seats. What an amazing country this is.

Japanese Masters Get Closer to the Toilet Nirvana

NARA, Japan — Japan's toilet wars started in February, when Matsushita engineers here unveiled a toilet seat equipped with electrodes that send a mild electric charge through the user's buttocks, yielding a digital measurement of body-fat ratio.

Unimpressed, engineers from a rival company, Inax, counterattacked in April with a toilet that glows in the dark and whirs up its lid after an infrared sensor detects a human being [NOTE--this has been around for years; what's truly impressive is that it seems to be able to tell which way you're facing, i.e., when to raise just the lid for a sitter or the lid and seat together for a standee--Peter]. When in use, the toilet plays any of six soundtracks, including chirping birds, rushing water, tinkling wind chimes, or the strumming of a traditional Japanese harp.

In a Japanese house, "the only place you can be alone and sit quietly is likely to be the toilet," said Masahiro Iguchi, marketing chief for Inax.

This may be one explanation for the ferocious toilet research going on in Japan. This is a nation famously addicted to gadgetry of any variety, and the addiction clearly extends to the bathroom. Another factor stimulating toilet research is the fact that Japan's population is peaking and the number of households is expected to start declining by the end of the decade. Some money can be made by exporting toilets to countries with comparatively primitive toilet cultures, like China and Vietnam. But in Japan the real sales growth will be found by adding exotic toilet features.

Matsushita, for example, introduced in May a $3,000 throne that not only greets a user by flipping its lid, but also by blasting its twin air nozzles — air-conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter. Patting this Cadillac of toilets, Hiroyuki Matsui, chief engineer here, said, "You can bring a bathroom temperature down by 7 degrees Celsius (13° F) in 30 seconds."

Then in June, Toto, Japan's toilet giant, came out with Wellyou II, a toilet that automatically measures the user's urine sugar levels by making a collection with a little spoon held by a retractable, mechanical arm.

Whether a home medical center or a Zen space for meditation, the toilet of the future will probably emerge from laboratories like the ones here at the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company — workshops so secretive and competitive that a visiting reporter and photographer were not allowed inside.

Americans should prepare for more than that simple 20th-century choice: to flush or not to flush. Users of the Matsushita toilet can program it to pre-heat or pre-cool a bathroom at a specific time at a set temperature. For owners who might not be so regular, this toilet allows users to set the temperature and pressure of a water jet spray used to wash and massage the buttocks, an enormously popular feature in Japan.

Toilet jet sprays, which sometimes confuse foreign visitors with disastrous results, are now in nearly half of Japanese homes, a rate higher than that of personal computers.

To some, this is a sign of a nation gone perilously soft. They worry that the cosseted Japanese youths of the future, sitting dreamily on air conditioned thrones, will be no match for their squat-toilet neighbors — the worker bees of industrial China or the spartan soldiers of North Korea.

Hideki Nishioka, a 90-year-old retired professor who chairs the Japan Toilet Association, a private group, says he always recommends that new schools in Japan contain "at least one or two of the old-style squat toilets." [Note: What impels a man to dedicate his waning years to a toilet advocacy group?--Peter]

But they increasingly look like relics. Talking toilets are on the horizon. Equipped with microchips, these models would go beyond music, greeting each user with a personalized message, perhaps a recorded word of encouragement from Mom or a kindergarten teacher. In return, people will soon be able give their toilets simple verbal commands.

"The voice sensor — `open sesame' and the lid opens — that will be on the market in two years," predicted Ryosuke Hayashi, manager of product engineering for Toto, a company that holds 60 percent of Japan's commode market. "It really is not difficult to make it responsive to a human voice. If you tell the machine, `I want hotter water,' or `I want stronger spray pressure,' the machine will automatically respond."

Attacking a perennial issue, Toto sells a deodorizing toilet that "chemically neutralizes odor." Inax sells bathroom tiles billed as "odor absorbing."

But in a country with the demographics of Florida, the real growth will be medical toilets linked to the Internet.

"You may think a toilet is just a toilet, but we would like to make a toilet a home health measuring center," Mr. Matsui, the Matsushita engineer, said in a lecture here in Nara, near Osaka. "We are going to install in a toilet devices to measure weight, fat, blood pressure, heart beat, urine sugar, albumin and blood in urine."

The results would be sent from the toilet to a doctor by an Internet-capable cellular phone built into the toilet. Through long-distance monitoring, doctors could chart a person's physical well-being.

"We will have this within five years or so," said Harry Terai, director of home appliances research for Matsushita.

With nursing homes largely full in Japan, the number of older people under home care is rising fast, jumping by nearly one quarter just last year.

"In Japan, most people see the doctor after they become ill," said Hironori Yamazaki, a Toto engineer. "With an eye to our demographic change, we are setting out to make the toilet a space for the early discovery of disease."

But some civil libertarians are having nightmares about "smart toilets" running amok, e-mailing highly personal information hither and yon. There are also Big Brother nightmares about master computers monitoring millions of bowel movements, checking around the clock to see who is constipated, who is not eating his peas and who is drinking too much.

"I assume the records that come out of my toilet will have the same degree of protection as records that are generated when I take a medical exam," said Lawrence Repeta, a director of the Japan Civil Liberties Union. "There will be police investigators who see this as a great tool to find people who use illegal substances."\

Peter again. What's up with the toilet sound effects? This isn't even new. All "old-fashioned" nonelectronic sitters in Japan have a two-way flush lever (wonderfully labeled "big" and "small")--one way flushes, the other releases a steady flow of water mainly to make noise. Why? Most Japanese are terrified that any noises they happen to make will be overheard. I think that would be grounds for horrifically painful ritual suicide. The running water, and now the electronic bird sounds, provide covering noise. Your possible initial conclusion, that most Japanese hate peace and quiet, wouldn't be wrong (all ski areas and even some "natural" parks play music everywhere, all the time), but it isn't the explanation here.

As for Big Brother (note that the quoted director of the JCLU is named "Lawrence"), just imagine when your internet toilet uploads to the same computer that your car's computer, GPS system, and electronic toll payment system upload to: free sobriety checks every time you pee after returning home! And just imagine someone hacking your toilet (you better get a Mac or Linux OS, because you don't want Microsoft-style security on that particular computing device). Think of the end-of-month statistics you can upload into your spreadsheet package, too; you can make pie-charts, graphs, maybe even Powerpoint presentations (entertain the family for hours!).

I think I came here at a golden moment in Japanese history: late enough to have a decent chance of finding a sitter rather than a squatter in many places, and early enough that I don't have to listen to an electronic voice telling me to lay off the red meat every time I sit down for a good read (of the six junior highs in Takefu, only the two newest--MY TWO SCHOOLS--have sitters available: I am indeed the chosen one; also, I set some kind of local blood iron level record the last staff health check-up).

When the war is forgotten, when samurai movies, kabuki theater, and kimono have all been forgotten, Japan will still be remembered for its toilets--the glorious pinnacle of fifteen hundred years of culture.



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