Toto introduced the washlet in 1980: Washlet G was a retractable contraption resembling a ceramic toothbrush, with wash and dry functions.
Toto’s 1982 TV commercial featured the winsome actress-singer Togawa Jun smearing black paint on her palm and then using toilet paper to wipe it off. The slogan for this 149,000-yen invention was “The bottom also wants to be washed” (お尻だって洗って欲しい). This suggestive but graphic display of the limits of conventional hygiene generated a flood of angry letters from Japanese viewers, for whom the idea of spraying themselves appeared not just alien but disgusting.
And yet, just thirty years later, the washlet is as ubiquitous as the personal computer and digital camera—more than 70% of Japanese households have one.
The washlet is essentially a spray that delivers warm water at a precise angle to the anal and genital areas. In the control panel, “oshiri” (おしり, derriere) is signified by a rounded W over a fountain of water—some models offer a choice of jet stream or gentle shower—while the “bidet” (ビデ) is represented by a stylized woman.
With the washlet, one no longer needs to use one’s hands or pour water all over oneself just to get to one part. A push of the Dry (乾燥) button eliminates the need for toilet paper altogether: think of how many forests can be saved this way.
The washlet has also evolved with technology: different kinds of spray (including massage), heated seats (a big plus for those who live in countries that have winter seasons), automatic flushing and self-cleaning, mechanical raising and lowering of seats and lids, motion detectors to turn lights on and off, deodorizers and aroma-vaporizers. For those who are shy about being heard in public, there is a button that produces flushing sounds. The newer “green” models are more energy efficient and use far less water (3.8L) than the standard American toilet.
Toto was the first Japanese company to develop a ceramic seated flush toilet in 1914, and the first in the world to develop a construction method for prefabricated bathroom modules in 1963. By 2011, sales of its washlets had surpassed the 30-million mark. A year later, Toto’s first model Washlet G was awarded a Mechanical Engineering Heritage certification.
Intriguingly, Southeast Asian bathroom practices may have played a role in the development of the Toto washlet.
In countries like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, people have the habit of washing themselves in the toilet. What westerners call the “bum gun”—basically a manually operated hose—can be found in department stores in Indonesia and even the international airport in Thailand.
Philippine malls and public toilets do not have this feature, but at home, Filipinos regularly use the tabo, a small pail with a long handle, to clean up. Some Filipinos (this author included) are known to carry tabo in their luggage when they travel abroad.
Might Toto have gotten the inspiration for its washlet from the Southeast Asian predilection for washing after using the bathroom? Toto had established a joint venture in Indonesia under the name P.T. Surya Toto Indonesia in 1977, three years before it introduced the washlet, and its CEO at the time was known to be keenly interested in Southeast Asia.
Whatever its origin, the washlet is now making inroads in the global market, with more than 29 subsidiaries around the world. Other companies have produced their own versions in Japan and South Korea, but Toto’s precision engineering and deluxe design ensure that this Lexus of Toilets (as the Economist puts it) remains King.
Cleanliness is often a matter of perception and habit rather than science. There are those who don’t feel clean unless they wash, while others say that as long as nothing shows on the toilet paper, then it’s clean enough for them. Toto’s ability to conquer the world will depend not only on technological innovation and affordability, but on a cultural revolution in that most intimate and basic of human bodily function.
Note: This essay was originally published in “Letters to Narcissus.”