The modern toilet has probably added a decade to the human life span (and was voted the biggest medical advance of the last two centuries by the readers of the British Medical Journal). But it is flawed. Seating us high—the average American toilet now measures an astonishing 16.5 inches (42 centimeters) from rim to floor—it is ergonomically questionable, as it squeezes shut the colon and in fact hampers the process of evacuation that it is designed to aid. But the Western world is happy with it.
Marketers call toilets a "distress purchase," only replaced when necessary. One country treats the toilet differently: In Japan, the toilet is modified, improved on, innovated. It is a design object, a must-have, a desirable product. Enormous sums are spent on improving its smallest parts. Japanese toilets can, variously, check your blood pressure; play you music; wash and dry your anus and "front parts" by means of an in-toilet nozzle that sprays water and warm air; suck smelly ions from the air; switch on a light for you as you stumble into the bathroom at night; put the seat lid down for you (a function known as the "marriage-saver," and one that also prevents fine particles of fecal matter being sprayed around the bathroom with every flush); and flush away your excreta without requiring anything as old-fashioned as a tank. These devices are known as high-function toilets, but even the lowliest high-function toilet will have as standard an in-built bidet system, a heated seat, and some form of nifty control panel.
The Washlet, originally a brand name for a toilet seat with bidet function, has become a generic word for a high-function toilet (usually translated as Washeretto). Since 1980, TOTO, Japan's biggest and oldest toilet manufacturer, has sold 20 million Washlets to a nation of 160 million people. According to census figures, more Japanese households now have a Washlet than a computer.