Japan’s 21st-century toilet technology

Never have I seen so many buttons in a bathroom stall, I thought as I took a quick pit stop after our 14-hour flight from New York to Tokyo. It turns the sleek international terminal of Narita Airport would not be the last place we’d see what I’d call “toilet technology”. 

Japan is indeed a very advanced country, and is the ancestral home of Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, the Toyota Prius and other electronic wonders. This is a place where a simple electric rice maker comes in more varieties than Baskin Robbins’ ice cream. Still, nowhere more than the humble commode did I notice this technological obsession. Whether it’s a well-intentioned attempt to save water or a simple infatuation with the newest gadgets, we couldn’t tell.

In Japan, the simple toilet has been replaced by the “heat-let”, a heated toilet seat, and the “wash-let”, a kind of remote-controlled three-dimensional bidet. The wash-let has impressively precise streams for both ends. It even includes a privacy feature: the “music” button, which plays soothing (and muffling) water sounds during your restroom activities.

Still, there are corners of the country that make do with the ultra-traditional “hole in ground” commode, what I would call “the squatter”. I am not a toilet historian and thus do not know when the rapid evolution from “squatter” to robotic “wash-let” began. What I can report, however, is that the robots have nearly triumphed. These robotic toilets are ubiquitous.

Japan was a charming mix of old and new, traditional and technological. Though besides its arcades, its technology was most on show in its bullet trains (shinkansen) and its restroom facilities. If I were a sociologist, I would say this tells us something about national priorities, but I think it reflects something about humanity as a whole, because what else can you ask for besides a little entertainment, a quick ride, and a relaxing place to poop?

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