Saturday, February 04, 2017

Seat of Power

It took some doing, but it's an example where people with opposing views actually did come together. The parties put aside their vested interests, considered what was best for the common good and gave up their entrenched ideas and positions about what was right and wrong. The result was a compromise for all, but one that holds out the promise for a better future.

Gun control? Not a chance. Minimum wage? No way. Tax policy? Not in my lifetime. This is about bathrooms, but not about transgender rights, or parity for male and female restrooms, or even the size of facilities on airplanes. Each of those is too thorny a problem to resolve by mere reasonable discussion. Rather, we're talking toilet seats.

To be very specific, we're talking Japanese toilet seats. The country that gave us such leading-edge technologies as the Walkman, the Game Boy and instant ramen noodles didn't stop at the bathroom door. Not content with upgrading their traditional squat models to western fixtures, they did what Sony and Nintendo and Nissin Foods have done time and again: take something that we think we have a handle on, and improve upon it in ways we never thought possible or that we even needed. Or to paraphrase "Field of Dreams," if you build a toilet that raises the lid with the push of a button, they will come.

That's just one of the tricks they've been able to teach the old dog. Along with raising the lid you can also raise the seat. There are often buttons for both large and small flush, a water saving approach you see more and more of around the world. And since it's a country with a limited amount of room, it's not uncommon to find a bidet feature built in, with both front and rear warm water sprays. Some even have a warm air drying function, making the full-function models a Porsche for your derriere.

There's just one problem. While 76% of Japanese homes have some variation on the, uh, well, all-in toilet, it's not something with which many westerners are familiar or comfortable. Add in the country's overall push to make itself friendlier for the 2020 Olympic Games, which will bring millions of visitors and associated loo visits, and you have a situation where (to beat the Porsche analogy senseless) there will be millions of student drivers sitting in the driver's seat and stepping on the gas when they should be hitting the brake. Mind you, if it WERE a car, the worse you could do is kill yourself. The horrors of a toilet seat accident are too horrible to contemplate.

And it's not just theory. According to a 2014 survey "I did not know how to use a Japanese-style toilet" and "I did not understand the role of various operation buttons" were the top complaints by tourists, clocking in at over 25% of all the responses. Additionally, "I pressed the emergency button" was cited by nearly 9% of foreign visitors. That said, there is no "emergency" button, though it's easy to see how someone could panic when sitting in a small stall in a strange country with your pants around your ankles when warm water suddenly squirts on your butt.

So market leaders Toto, Panasonic and Toshiba got together with the other companies that make up the Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association, and hammered out a standardized set of eight pictographs for all toilets. Think Ikea type directions for when you need to do your business. Now even confused Americans will be able to discern the proper buttons to push when they need to flush big time, as well as hopefully avoiding closing the lid when they think they are cleansing their posterior. It might not merit a Gold medal, but will go a long way towards making Japan the Miss Congeniality of the games.

While the unified signs will be used for all new toilets sold starting in April, and retrofit packages will be available for existing installations, the Japanese have grander aspirations. Said Madoka Kitamura, head of the industry group and president of Toto, the world's largest manufacturer of toilets, "We hope to welcome foreign tourists with clean toilets and spread them to the world." In other words: Japanese Toilet Seats First.

Uh oh: I think I see a potential problem here.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wonders about the potential for hacking the bathroom. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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