TOTO spotted a flawed design that could use some innovation. In 1964 the Wash Air Seat arrived in Japan. Produced by the American Bidet Company, this detachable seat featured a nozzle that sprayed warm water and also blew hot air for drying purposes. In the U.S., the Wash Air Seat had been aimed at patients who had difficulty using toilet paper or reaching round to wipe themselves. It was a niche item that TOTO thought had mass appeal. After all, water is better for cleansing, something that cultures who wash rather than wipe know well. For water cultures, using toilet paper to clean the dirtiest part of the body makes as much hygienic sense as rubbing oneself with a towel instead of taking a shower.
But TOTO's version failed. It was too expensive. The bidet function was too foreign. And Japanese also didn't know they wanted better toilets. The privy was neither talked about nor acknowledged, a cultural convention demonstrated by the common proverb Kusaimono ni futa wo suru (to keep a lid on stinky things). The toilet could not be advertised. So the Washlet languished in obscurity for years.
At TOTO I am joined by Ryosuke Hayashi, a senior engineer and important man. Of the 1,500 patents that TOTO has filed in Japan (and 600 internationally), the Restroom Department is responsible for half. Rick finds my interest in the Washlet quaint. I say that for any non-Japanese person used to a cold, ceramic toilet that does nothing but flush, the Washlet is extraordinary. He's unconvinced.
He'd rather talk about the Neorest, TOTO's top of the line toilet and, in his engineering eyes, an infinitely superior combination of plumbing and computing. Certainly, the Neorest looks gorgeous. It should, when it retails in Japan for $1,700, and in the U.S. for $5,000. Rick thinks that the price is a bargain, considering that "it has a brain." The Neorest takes two days to learn its owner's habits, and adjusts its heating and water use accordingly. It knows when to switch the heat off and which temperature is preferable. It has sensors to assess when the lid needs to be put down or when the customer has finished and the nozzle can be retracted.
All this technology has come from years of research, billions of yen and many great minds (TOTO has 1,500 engineers)—and a visit to a strip club. I persist in asking about the genesis of the Washlet and how it changed Japan, and Rick finally humors me. To sell the Washlet to an unwelcoming public, it had to work properly. The Wash Air Seat and the early Washlet operated mechanically. It took several minutes for the spray to spray and for the water to heat. TOTO solved this by making the workings electronically operated, the spray instant, and the angle perfect. The Washlet nozzle extends and retracts at exactly 43 degrees, a position precisely calibrated to prevent any cleansing water from falling back on the nozzle after doing its job. (This is known as "backwash".) Determining the angle was a long, careful process, Rick says. I ask him how the research was done. He says, "Well, we have 20,000 employees," and stops. I wait for enlightenment.