The answer lies in a comic book. This is a 48-page TOTO history published by Weekly Sankei magazine in 1985, five years after the company had relaunched the Washlet. Its heroes are Mr Kawakami, a TOTO engineer, and his portly, cheery colleague, Mr. Ito. Kawakami and Ito are entrusted with improving the Washlet. The nozzle has to be accurate, and to make it so, they need to know the average location of the human anus. Facts like this are not easy to find, so they turn to the only source material available, which is anybody on the company payroll. Their workmates aren't impressed. "Though we are colleagues," one says with politeness, "I don't want you to know my anus position."
But Kawakami and Ito eventually prevail. Three hundred colleagues were persuaded to sit on a toilet—in private—and to mark the positions of their anuses by fixing a small piece of a paper to a wire strung across the seat. The average is calculated (for males, it comes to between 27 and 28 centimeters, or 10.5 and 11 inches, from the front of the toilet seat), but that's only the first hurdle. Mr Kawakami is now tasked with improving the Washlet's ability to wash "the female place". He needs to know how many centimeters separate a female's two places, and is initially at a loss. Obviously the best place to research female places is in a place with females, preferably naked ones. That's where the strip club comes in, though most strip club clientele are unlikely to react as Mr. Kawakami does, by shouting, "Three centimeters!"
By 1995, 23 per cent of Japanese houses had some kind of Washlet, according to a Cabinet Office survey, and by the end of the next decade, the figure had doubled. The obvious business plan was to go global. In toilet terms, the wealthy consumers of the United States are the next frontier. TOTO opened its first U.S. office in 1989. Its current premises in New York City are in downtown SoHo, where the window display—a glossy, sleek Neorest—somehow fits in well on this street of designer shops.
TOTO's initial success in the U.S., though, had nothing to do with aesthetics. In 1992, after it was noted that a flush toilet uses 40 percent of a household's water, the United States government passed the Energy Policy Act (EPAct), requiring all new toilets within two years to use only 1.5 gallons (5.5 liters) for each flush, when the average was an astonishing eight gallons (30 liters). The toilet industry was wrong-footed. Two years was barely enough time to change production lines, let alone reconfigure a toilet design that relied on a set volume of water to function. Consequently, the next several years are still known as the time of clogging.
American manufacturers' loss was initially TOTO's gain. TOTO's success in Japan had come through clever advertising and marketing, but it was also due to a brown, gloopy material called gi ji obutse, which translates as "fake body waste". It is, TOTO staff in Japan tell me, "a key part of TOTO," and so key, the recipe is top secret, though they will reveal that it involves soybean paste.
Soybean paste (miso) is a lethal weapon in the battle for toilet market victory, because toilet-makers need to test ﬂushes, and they need test media to do it with. A ﬂush is a chaotic event. Various media bounce around trying to get through one small opening. The more realistic the test media, the closer its properties—buoyancy, density—to human feces, the better the ﬂush. Toilet engineers have always known this: When George Jennings's Pedestal Vase won a gold medal at a Health Exhibition in 1884, it had successfully ﬂushed 10 apples, one ﬂat sponge, three "air vessels" (crumpled paper) as well as cleaning the "plumber's smudge" smeared on the bowl's surface.
When the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) published a survey in 2002 testing toilets for ﬂush performance, TOTO models were ranked ﬁrst, second and third. This helped TOTO's reputation and sales: Since 2003, annual U.S. sales have doubled (from 14.4 billion to 30.1 billion yen, or $257 million). TOTO won't release sales ﬁgures—beyond saying unhelpfully that the company is "the recognized leader in the toilet category," which would puzzle industry leader Kohler—but, at least temporarily, gi ji obutse helped to give them the ﬂushing edge in a clogged nation.
Also, TOTO had successfully sold its toilets on the concept that they could keep the consumer clean, rather than the other way round. It would do the same in America. In 2007 the expensive "Clean is Happy" campaign was introduced to the American public. There were viral Internet ads and a lavish Web site featuring disturbingly cheery people telling you what Washlets could do in language Americans could understand. The deodorizer, one cheery person explained, "is kind of like the catalytic converter in your car." It is "a hands-free clean," said another. It uses water, and what's so scary about that, when "we wash our faces and hair with water! Humans love water!" It will be a hard sell in a county that still associates bidets with louche behavior and Parisian debauchery. Anal washing still means dirty naughtiness, as many Muslim-Americans revealed in a 2005 show called Lota Stories, where Americans recorded their experiences of using a lota—a cupful of water—in their toilet habits. One contributor left some useful advice gained from several years of trying to use water in a culture content with "the complex, ridiculous thrones" (as described by philosopher Alan Watts) and unsatisfactory paper-cleaning methods. Keep a plant in the bathroom, the contributor wrote, to explain away the watering can or cup. Above all, use discretion. "Ignore the impulse to explain what you are doing, even to friends. Unless people have been using a lota all their lives, the beneﬁts completely escape them, and they will view you as a freak with a freakish bathroom custom."
TOTO won't admit sales figures, but its American reach is nothing like back home. Perhaps the robo-toilet revolution is simply taking its time. But Tomohiko Satou of TOTO's archrival Inax is noticeably lacking in TOTO-style optimism. He spent time posted in Inax's San Francisco office, where sales, he admits, were "not so much." "Japanese people," he tells me, "understand that our product is very sanitary and clean." But years of trying to explain that to Americans taught him a painful truth. "Americans just don't want to use it. They're not scared. They're just not interested."