Flush of the future

Tokyo's Toto makes toilets that do everything -- whether you want them to or not.

Published October 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Toto is a Japanese company that makes the world's most sophisticated toilets. Unfortunately, if you do not read Japanese, the sophistication will be lost on you and they will instead be the world's most confusing and alarming toilets.

My first Toto encounter took place in a Tokyo restroom outfitted with a Toto Washlet. A control panel next to the seat displayed pastel buttons marked with graphics, the choices appearing to be: Lying-Down 3 and Armless Lady Sitting Atop Geyser. Having visited the Old Faithful geyser and doubting my ability to remain balanced atop anything of the sort, with or without arms, I pressed the other button. The Lying-Down 3, it turns out, represents a pair of buttocks. I had unwittingly opted for a rectal washing. A pulsating spray shot up from inside the toilet bowl, causing me to leap from the seat in horror, allowing the water to jet from the toilet bowl in a graceful arc, wetting the floor and key pieces of my clothing.

I cowered in the corner waiting for the storm to pass and praying that no one would open the door in the next few minutes and catch me blow-drying my panties over the air-dry cycle.

I will not make this mistake again, for I have since visited the Toto Technical Center in Tokyo, and now know all. The Center is architecturally splendid, not at all the sort of thing you expect of a toilet company. Similarly incongruous was my Toto interpreter, Ayumi Shimano, who has multiple studs in his ears and fashionably long sideburns. It seemed odd that this stylish young man would be drawn to a career in toilets, until he mentioned that his Tokyo apartment had been built by Toto.

"The toilet room is very gorgeous," he told me. In a city where the standard bathroom unit measures approximately 3 feet by 5, this was a considerable perk.

Ayumi introduced me to a Toto System Development Manager named Mr. Nakazato and a P.R. woman named Kumi Goto, and we proceeded with stunning alacrity to discuss the available varieties of Rectal Washing. There was one called "massage-washing," which Kumi described as "stimulating."

I thought she meant pleasurable, but Ayumi corrected me. "It stimulates the rectum and will help women ... will prevent women from ..." He started over. "Women often don't make waste smoothly."

"You mean they're constipated?" I said. He nodded triumphantly, relieved and grinning like a "Password" contestant after a particularly trying round. I told them that I thought men were as likely as women to be in need of massage-washing.

"Men have other problem," replied Kumi. "Men have ... scar ..." The "Password" match resumed. "Itch ..."

"Hemorrhoids!" I shouted.

"Yes!" said Kumi excitedly, then quickly regained her public-relations composure. "By using toilet paper, it will rub the ... part. Using water we can wash more softly."

The Bidet Washing option generated deeper, more intractable confusion. Kumi stated that in the U.S., bidets are used to prevent pregnancy. I know of only one woman in the States who lives in an apartment with a bidet. She uses hers to wash out lingerie, and though I cannot claim extensive knowledge in this area, I questioned the birth-control properties of the practice.

I was under the impression that although women do use bidets after sex, it's mainly for freshening up their ... parts. I asked Kumi if that was what Bidet Washing was used for in Japan. She looked at Ayumi, who contemplated the translation challenge that lay ahead, and then said to me, "She probably doesn't know."

Though Washlets were new to me, they have actually been on the market for 20 years, and the Toto people have no doubt grown tired of talking about them. They were eager to tell me about some of their newer inventions, such as the computerized Urinalysis Toilet and the Travel Washlet. Mr. Nakazato excused himself and came back with one of the latter. This is the Mini-Me of Washlets, a collapsible battery-powered plastic model the size of a walkie-talkie.

"You fill it up with water in the toilet room, and the spraying comes out here," explained Ayumi. He pointed the device at Mr. Nakazato as though threatening to massage-wash his glasses. "When he went to Italia, he carried it."

At a pause in the conversation, Mr. Nakazato slid a brochure across the table to me. It was entitled New Technology of Toto. He referred to it as "our No-Skid Technology," leading me to believe we were talking about innovations in bathtub safety. "See is believe," he pronounced solemnly and led the way, oddly, to a row of demonstration toilets. After some linguistic machinations, it became clear that he was talking about skid marks.

Toto has vanquished the dreaded B.M. skid mark. We were joined by a woman in a lab coat, who stirred a beaker of brown-gray goo. Ayumi searched for words. "Mimic waste," he said finally. With a paint brush and no discernible emotion, the woman coated the toilet bowl, one side of which had been glazed with New Technology, the other with ordinary glaze.

With due ceremony, the woman flushed the toilet. All four of us leaned forward over the bowl and watched as the New Technology side washed clean. After a moment of silence, Mr. Nakazato announced that you can't write on the no-skid glaze with pencil. I was unsure whether this was a flaw of the technology or an advantage, and so I merely nodded.

The brochure laid out the secrets of the new glaze: nanometer-scale-smoothness and 100-percent negative ions, which repel the negative ions of the waste. This was illustrated with a four-panel cartoon featuring grimacing blobs of waste being punched away from the toilet bowl surface by a layer of fists on springs. Either that, or there is an actual Toto toilet wherein at the push of a pastel button, small fists spring up from the surface of the bowl.

I will never find out, for I aim to keep my Lying-Down 3 far away from untranslated computerized toilets from here on out.

By Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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