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Everybody loves to sit on one – so why isn’t the Japanese toilet more popular?

Many Japanese innovations, such as the Toyota Prius and selfie stick, have achieved worldwide penetration. The reasons why their fancy toilets haven’t could be down to cost and culture.

Everybody loves to sit on one – so why isn’t the Japanese toilet more popular?

Singaporean travellers often return from Japan with fond memories that usually include toilets. (Neorest photo: TOTO @ W. Atelier)

“We are like kids exploring a cruise ship,” one colleague said as we scurried around Bracken House, the Financial Times’ London headquarters, to which we have just returned after 30 years. 

Apart from the original entrance, intact but now out of use, the building is transformed, with various exciting new features from a roof-top garden to a multi-faith prayer room. And dotted around the building – with the encouragement, we assume, of Nikkei, our owners – are several Japanese toilets.

Sometimes what you really want is a toilet that cleans you instead of the other way round. (Neorest photo: TOTO @ W. Atelier)

If you travel to Japan, you will know these. Toto, the market-leading manufacturer, calls them electronic toilet-bidets. You can warm the seat with the touch of a button, and a control panel activates water-jet cleaning and drying.

READ: Ode to the glorious Japanese toilet

If you travel outside Japan, you also know that Japanese toilets don’t travel much. You find them in some luxury hotels elsewhere. The only one I have seen was in a high-end Shanghai establishment where I had joined our correspondent for a drink. My colleague Lucy Kellaway came across one recently when she stayed in the penthouse suite at the London Mandarin Oriental.

The paucity of Japanese toilets elsewhere is not for want of trying. Toto set up its first overseas joint venture in Indonesia in 1977. Yet nearly three-quarters of the company’s 2017 sales were in Japan. China accounted for 52 per cent of its exports, the rest of Asia 23 per cent and the Americas 22 per cent. Only three per cent of its foreign sales were in Europe.

A child dances as she listens to a song by toilet bowls at a toilet exhibition at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo. (Photo: TORU YAMANAKA / AFP)

Many Japanese innovations – from the Toyota Prius to the selfie stick – have achieved worldwide penetration. Why not the Japanese toilet? In search of answers, I went to Toto Europe’s London shop, where I spoke to Asuka Osada, the marketing and corporate strategy manager.

She showed me the top-of-the-range Neorest toilet, which lifts its lid as you approach. It can store two users’ favourite settings, so that it knows, for example, your preferred water pressure. The Neorest retails for £12,000 (S$20,970).

READ: Loo and behold: Apps to locate clean restrooms while you travel

We also looked at the Toto Washlet, the company’s entry-level toilet, which is the one we have at Bracken House. You have to lift the lid yourself, but it has the heating, spraying and drying controls, and will set you back £2,100.

Toto has sold 50m Washlets since their launch in 1980 and most Japanese homes have one. Why don’t other countries? During my chat with Osada, I could spot three reasons, which we can call the three Cs.

The first is cost. Even the basic version is more than western householders expect to spend on a toilet, but given how much money the better-off lavish on their bathrooms, you would think more would go for a technologically advanced loo.

It's a toilet. It's a night light. It's a night toi-light. (Neorest photo: TOTO @ W. Atelier)

The second C is culture. As Osada explained, there are wipe cultures and wash cultures. People don’t switch easily. The third C is current. Japanese toilets have to be plugged into a socket and the received wisdom in the UK and many other countries is that electricity and water don’t mix, although Osada said that all Toto’s connections are waterproof.

In Japan, she said, tech toilets began in the home and spread to offices and schools as people expected them there. The Toto strategy for overseas markets is to begin with hotels and hope users then want them at home.

In an interview last year with the Nikkei Asian Review, Madoka Kitamura, Toto’s president, said he hoped visitors to Japan would buy the toilets on their return home. The Japanese government’s aim of attracting 30m tourists a year “provides us”, he said, rather marvellously, “with a tail wind”.

At Bracken House we’re convinced, although I don’t know any colleagues with a plan, or the budget, to install them at home.

By Michael Skapinker © 2019 The Financial Times