Forget Pokémon. Forget that long parade of Japanese cars and motorbikes that clog our roads. Forget the Walkman and the Game Boy. No, the greatest contribution of Japanese inventiveness to our Western culture lies not in the automotive or entertainment industry but, you may be relieved to hear, in sanitation. I apologise in advance for any puns – please be reassured that their use is entirely accidental. Or does that make it worse?
In Britain the toilet is a source of embarrassment except obviously to some of the more robust scouse comedians (and I use the word comedian in its broadest understanding). The toilet is an inaccessible little room under the stairs or tucked away somewhere else in the house. Often the room is barely big enough to… well, you know. Not so much a public convenience as a private inconvenience. Blushed cheeks all round.
But, if that seems bizarre, we should not forget that, in many working-class terrace houses, the toilet was not even in the building. It often occupied a small shed appended to the back of the house or even further down the garden. In extreme weather, it would freeze, thus rendering it entirely useless. In those days before global warming, when snow and ice held dominion in winter, entire generations must have gone from December to February without a bowel movement. Not one poo north of Sheffield. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
But then the Victorians never actually went to the toilet. Or so we would be led to believe. Presumably. Victorian men were happier visiting prostitutes than reflecting on their own bowel habits. But then Victorian taboos have never made sense.
Japan’s different. Anyone who has seen a Japanese gameshow will be aware that the Japanese capacity for scatological humour is almost infinite. There is nothing about bodily functions that is off-limits it appears. The toilet is close to the Japanese heart.
I first encountered the Japanese toilet at my hotel. Lights slowly flashing and a faint gurgling announced its presence. In fact I have never seen so many lights, dials and controls on something designed to dispose of poo. Well, let’s not be shy – that is exactly what it does.
But in Japan, the emphasis is on detail and harmonious interactions. The tea ceremony is a case in point. If you want to watch perfection of movement and attention to detail, then the tea ceremony is it’s very apotheosis. If on the other hand you are parched, spitting feathers, in search of a cuppa, you have come to the wrong place.
The British toilet is a place to carry out a single function (or two I suppose if you count reading the newspaper). The Japanese toilet is a celebration of imperialist Japanese technological supremacy.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Sitting on the British toilet, especially in winter months, elicits a sharp intake of breath and the very real possibility of frostbite. Frostbite in places you don’t want frostbite. That very moment of interaction between bottom and Melamine speaks volumes. Specifically it says “get on with it lad”. It does not encourage you to linger.
Eight thousand miles away, in Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki and Tokyo, the toilet speaks a different language. From the moment you position your posterior on its warm surface (yes I did say warm), it invites you to take your time, to reflect on life. This is a Zen experience. And an adjustable dial allows you to adjust the temperature – from tepid disinterest through to a setting that looked suspiciously like a waffle iron. I left all controls be for fear of being branded.
The Japanese toilet does not stop at the temperature of the seat. No sirree. The toilet is infinitely adjustable. In a small panel on the wall are more ways of modifying your toilet experience than a 1970s graphic equaliser. Behind a mass of – to me at least – incomprehensible hieroglyphs, resided the kind of technology associated with a NASA rocket launch. You could alter the flow of water, its direction, temperature, dispersal and, for all I know, political preferences.
I left all the controls at default. I come from Yorkshire and such fancies are beyond my imagination. In Doncaster, we’re just happy not to get frostbite. Leave these pampered posteriors to the southerners. That said, one of my female friends emerged from the toilet with the widest smile I have ever seen. Clearly Japanese technology has its place.
The Japanese toileting experience is not limited simply to the engine itself. Even the environment around can be modified. Lighting can create a mood to match the twittering of songbirds that comprises the default sonic panorama. And if birds are not to your taste, how about serene forest noises or the sound of waves crashing on the shore. Maybe music is more your bag. You can poop to Puccini if you so wish. One thing is for sure – you will never think of Nessun Dorma the same way again. Or for those more decisive moments, perhaps the 1812 overture. There is music for every eventuality.
I am all for technology. And I love to think about the kind of scientists whose life’s work is embodied in these magnificent toilets. Over the course of a lifetime, we spend on average, somewhere in the region of six months on the toilet. That’s long enough to listen to the entire works of Wagner more than 75 times. And if that isn’t a persuasive argument for the application of this technology, I don’t know what is. Forget all those Sunderland made Toyotas, this is what we will all be buying post Brexit. You read it here first.