It is easy—for anyone who has not used one—to dismiss a Washlet as yet another product of Japanese eccentricity: Robo-toilets. But the stunning success of the high-function toilet holds lessons for anyone—from public health officials to marketing experts—whose work involves understanding and changing human behaviour and decision making. It is instructive because only 60 years ago, Japan was a nation of squatting pit latrines. Today, the Japanese sit, use water and expect a heated seat as a matter of course. In less than a century, the Japanese toilet industry has achieved the equivalent of persuading a country that drove on the left in horse-drawn carriages to move to the right and, by the way, to drive a Ferrari instead.
I arrange to visit the TOTO Technical Center in Tokyo. It is a low, sleek building, oddly located on a residential street. The Center is described as "[a place] where architects come to get ideas about designs." Sample bathroom sets gleam in the distance; a row of toilets automatically lift their lids as I walk past, in a ceramic greeting ceremony. Photographs are forbidden. The toilet industry in Japan is a highly competitive business, and the top three—TOTO, Inax and Matsushita—keep their secrets close. My requests to visit TOTO's product development laboratories were politely refused.
The world's biggest toilet manufacturer was founded in 1917, when a man called Kazuchika Okura, then working for a ceramics company, thought it might be a good idea to manufacture toilet bowls. It was not the most obvious business plan in a nation that used squat latrines. Progress was slow at first. Then came World War II, which left Japan with a damaged infrastructure and a determination from planners to build superior housing connected to sewers. By 1977, more Japanese were sitting than squatting.
The new ceramic sitting toilet had disadvantages. Visiting an outhouse during Japan's freezing winters could never have been pleasant, but at least with a squat pan there was no contact between skin and cold material. The new style changed that: Now, flesh had to sit on icy ceramic for several months of the year, a situation worsened by a national resistance to central heating that persists today.