If you’ve ever traveled to other parts of the world, you’re aware that there’s no monoculture when it comes to defecation. Humanity takes many routes to relief.
Some of us sit on elevated thrones, while others squat above holes. Some of us cleanse ourselves with dry paper, while others employ a nearby pitcher of water. Perhaps most notably: Some of us—let’s call them “the Japanese”—have invented a magical toilet seat, which transforms the act of excretion into a technologically enhanced pleasure ritual.
You may have heard about these Japanese toilet seats. Perhaps you’ve experimented with one on a trip to Tokyo. They boast remote controls, heated seats, and bidet functions. Some models play whooshing white noise in an effort to obscure other, zestier sounds. Toto, the leading brand, introduced its Washlet in 1982, and it’s been estimated that more than 70 percent of Japanese homes now feature a toilet seat with enhanced capabilities. (Meanwhile, only 30 percent have a dishwasher. For the Japanese, washing bottoms takes precedence over washing kitchenware.)
For some reason, we in the United States have not yet boarded this fancy toilet seat train. Toto claims sales of Washlets in North America grow every year and have now reached a rate of “several thousand” each month. But not a single person I know—including folks who pamper themselves in all sorts of other ways—owns a toilet seat with an automated bidet function. My personal experience is that Totos are rare even in the lavatories of luxury hotel rooms.
Given how often we use our toilets, and how much money we happily spend outfitting other corners of our houses with all manner of technologically advanced appliances, the lack of traction here for Toto seems curious. I wondered: What do the Japanese know that we don’t? To find out, I borrowed a top-of-the-line Washlet S350e from Toto and installed it in my bathroom.
Installation was no big deal. You remove your existing toilet seat and replace it with the new one. I did this myself, in about 20 minutes. I did occasionally bump my skull against porcelain, but I managed to shut off the water flow to my toilet tank, unscrew the flexible pipe that connects to the spigot in the wall, and screw in the adaptor valve that Toto provides. Now water would be routed not only to the tank but also to the toilet seat’s bidet nozzle and its separate bowl-cleaning sprayer.
I slid the batteries into the remote control and voila: All at once, my bathroom became a realm of surprise and delight. Press a button and the toilet seat lifts itself, hands free. Press the button again and the seat smoothly descends into place, ready for action. As it senses my approach, the Washlet sprays the inside of the toilet bowl with a preparatory mist of electrolyzed water—ensuring that, as the manual somewhat primly explains, “dirt” will not stick.
Prim readers can avert their eyes here: We now must describe the Washlet’s more intimate functions. Capabilities that one may experience only after one has dropped trou.
First, there is the heated seat. This is the sort of thing you don’t realize you need in your life until you’ve tried it and immediately decide you can no longer live without it. It is truly a pleasure to press your hindflesh to an oval of cozy warmth, instead of receiving a mild, chilly shock. Using the Washlet’s remote, you can adjust the seat’s temperature up or down until your haunches are happy.
When the time comes, the bidet function is also at your command. This is of course the killer app of the Washlet. The “money shot.” What separates the Toto from other toilet seats. It’s also something that we, as Americans, seem to be collectively intimidated by and/or squeamish about.
What lies behind our general discomfort with moist butt-cleaning? Do we feel that dry toilet paper is properly penitent—a fair punishment for our nasty, corporeal doings? Is it that we’re embarrassed to devote special attention to this part of our bodies? That we feel it’s weird or deviant to expend additional time, or money, or effort tending to our backsides? Is it that we’re ashamed to let others see our bidets, as this would imply that we do indeed have anuses and that they are occasionally subpristine?
Look no further than the disappointing sales of moist toilet tissue to see how freaked out we are by the thought of using anything beyond good old dry toilet paper. Cottonelle’s latest ads for its moist, flushable wipes feature a British woman who wants you to “talk about your bum.” Somehow her accent, and her cutesy toddler vocabulary, are defamiliarizing enough to disarm the folks she cajoles in the ads. But the fact that we require a foreign advocate just to make us even consider a moistened wipe is suggestive of the myriad societal obstacles inherent in this mission. And indeed, efforts to market moist toilet paper in America have been a failure so far, according to the research I could find. The stuff represents only 3 percent of U.S. toilet paper sales, and growth has been stagnant. Among American households that do buy moist toilet paper, 54 percent hide it out of sight in a bathroom cabinet—perhaps out of misguided embarrassment—which means it gets used much less often.
People in other parts of the world think we’re insane to use only dry bumwad. Go to South or East Asia, in regions with squat toilets, and you’ll always find a small tub of water or a garden hose (aka the “bum gun”) to spray yourself clean with. Even here, when we change an infant’s diaper, we recognize the utility of moisture. No parent would use dry paper instead of a moist wipe. Yet most of us deny our adult selves this basic comfort.
Toto’s David Krakoff, president of the sales division for Toto USA, makes the case for liquid over mere friction: “You would never consider your hands to be clean if you simply rubbed them on a dry paper towel with no water, and the shower you take every day is useless without water.” And yes, you could just buy the Cottonelle wipes for yourself and be cleaner and happier than the vast majority of your fellow Americans. But I submit that a bidet is the moist wipe writ much awesomer. Hands free, with a steady stream. A pressure washer for your undercarriage. You may augment it with dry paper if you wish, in whichever sequence you desire.
When I had some friends at my apartment last weekend and showed them the Washlet, they were intrigued but admitted their fear of the unknown. Would the spray of water be cold and bracing? Quite the contrary: You can adjust the temperature up or down, emulating a refreshing spring rain or a hot outpour from a teapot. Likewise, you can maneuver the bidet’s cannon forward or back to aim at just the right spot. Buttons on the remote will activate oscillation or pulsation, and raise or lower the intensity of the gush.
I will spare you effusive descriptions of my own experience with the Washlet. But it’s become difficult for me to remember a life without it. And having one at my house has made me wish that the restrooms I encounter elsewhere were all similarly equipped.
(By the way: I live alone, and there never arose an opportune moment to ask a female friend to test and assess the Washlet’s woman-focused bidet function—distinguished as “front” instead of “rear,” and indicated on the remote by a womanly silhouette. I did try it myself out of curiosity. It turns out that no matter where you aim a warm splash of water down there, it feels pretty good. The remote also has a memory function that lets you record his and hers settings for seat warmth and water pulsation and such.)
Now, there is the matter of the price. Which hovers in the mid-$900s on Amazon. That does seem like a lot for a toilet seat. But I think the Washlet is not a ridiculous purchase. I always hear people brag about the fortune they just dropped on a fancy mattress, justifying this expense by noting how much time they spend in bed. The logic pertains when it comes to the bathroom. Think about it: How much would you pay for a whole new feeling of well-being in your nethers?
The problem for Toto: You don’t yet know that you want that nether-feeling. You can’t even conceive of it, until you’ve tried it. Perhaps if sample Washlets were seeded in fine bathrooms all across the country, where folks could experience the transporting joy of a bidet? A showroom with test drives? I confess I do not envy the Toto marketing department. But their cause is just, and I believe, in time, it will wash away all of our doubts.