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Japanese Masters Get Closer to the Toilet Nirvana

By : James Brooke

The New York Times, October 8, 2002

  

   

  NARA, Japan - Japan's toilet wars started in February, when
Matsushita engineers here unveiled a toilet seat equipped
with electrodes that send a mild electric charge through
the user's buttocks, yielding a digital measurement of
body-fat ratio.

Unimpressed, engineers from a rival company, Inax,
counterattacked in April with a toilet that glows in the
dark and whirs up its lid after an infrared sensor detects
a human being. When in use, the toilet plays any of six
soundtracks, including chirping birds, rushing water,
tinkling wind chimes, or the strumming of a traditional
Japanese harp.

In a Japanese house, "the only place you can be alone and
sit quietly is likely to be the toilet," said Masahiro
Iguchi, marketing chief for Inax.

This may be one explanation for the ferocious toilet
research going on in Japan. This is a nation famously
addicted to gadgetry of any variety, and the addiction
clearly extends to the bathroom. Another factor stimulating
toilet research is the fact that Japan's population is
peaking and the number of households is expected to start
declining by the end of the decade. Some money can be made
by exporting toilets to countries with comparatively
primitive toilet cultures, like China and Vietnam. But in
Japan the real sales growth will be found by adding exotic
toilet features.

Matsushita, for example, introduced in May a $3,000 throne
that not only greets a user by flipping its lid, but also
by blasting its twin air nozzles - air-conditioning in the
summer, heat in the winter. Patting this Cadillac of
toilets, Hiroyuki Matsui, chief engineer here, said, "You
can bring a bathroom temperature down by 7 degrees Celsius
in 30 seconds."

Then in June, Toto, Japan's toilet giant, came out with
WellyouII, a toilet that automatically measures the user's
urine sugar levels by making a collection with a little
spoon held by a retractable, mechanical arm.

Whether a home medical center or a Zen space for
meditation, the toilet of the future will probably emerge
from laboratories like the ones here at the Matsushita
Electric Industrial Company - workshops so secretive and
competitive that a visiting reporter and photographer were
not allowed inside.

Americans should prepare for more than that simple
20th-century choice: to flush or not to flush. Users of the
Matsushita toilet can program it to pre-heat or pre-cool a
bathroom at a specific time at a set temperature. For
owners who might not be so regular, this toilet allows
users to set the temperature and pressure of a water jet
spray used to wash and massage the buttocks, an enormously
popular feature in Japan.

Toilet jet sprays, which sometimes confuse foreign visitors
with disastrous results, are now in nearly half of Japanese
homes, a rate higher than that of personal computers.

To some, this is a sign of a nation gone perilously soft.
They worry that the cosseted Japanese youths of the future,
sitting dreamily on air conditioned thrones, will be no
match for their squat-toilet neighbors - the worker bees of
industrial China or the spartan soldiers of North Korea.

Hideki Nishioka, a 90-year-old retired professor who chairs
the Japan Toilet Association, a private group, says he
always recommends that new schools in Japan contain "at
least one or two of the old-style squat toilets."

But they increasingly look like relics. Talking toilets are
on the horizon. Equipped with microchips, these models
would go beyond music, greeting each user with a
personalized message, perhaps a recorded word of
encouragement from Mom or a kindergarten teacher. In
return, people will soon be able give their toilets simple
verbal commands.

"The voice sensor - `open sesame' and the lid opens - that
will be on the market in two years," predicted Ryosuke
Hayashi, manager of product engineering for Toto, a company
that holds 60 percent of Japan's commode market. "It really
is not difficult to make it responsive to a human voice. If
you tell the machine, `I want hotter water,' or `I want
stronger spray pressure,' the machine will automatically
respond."

Attacking a perennial issue, Toto sells a deodorizing
toilet that "chemically neutralizes odor." Inax sells
bathroom tiles billed as "odor absorbing."

But in a country with the demographics of Florida, the real
growth will be medical toilets linked to the Internet.

"You may think a toilet is just a toilet, but we would like
to make a toilet a home health measuring center," Mr.
Matsui, the Matsushita engineer, said in a lecture here in
Nara, near Osaka. "We are going to install in a toilet
devices to measure weight, fat, blood pressure, heart beat,
urine sugar, albumin and blood in urine."

The results would be sent from the toilet to a doctor by an
Internet-capable cellular phone built into the toilet.
Through long-distance monitoring, doctors could chart a
person's physical well-being.

"We will have this within five years or so," said Harry
Terai, director of home appliances research for Matsushita.


With nursing homes largely full in Japan, the number of
older people under home care is rising fast, jumping by
nearly one quarter just last year.

"In Japan, most people see the doctor after they become
ill," said Hironori Yamazaki, a Toto engineer. "With an eye
to our demographic change, we are setting out to make the
toilet a space for the early discovery of disease."

But some civil libertarians are having nightmares about
"smart toilets" running amok, e-mailing highly personal
information hither and yon. There are also Big Brother
nightmares about master computers monitoring millions of
bowel movements, checking around the clock to see who is
constipated, who is not eating his peas and who is drinking
too much.

"I assume the records that come out of my toilet will have
the same degree of protection as records that are generated
when I take a medical exam," said Lawrence Repeta, a
director of the Japan Civil Liberties Union. "There will be
police investigators who see this as a great tool to find
people who use illegal substances."



 

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