They’re all the rage in Japan. Now Toto wants to sell them to the world…
Economist: IT IS the Lamborghini of lavatories, the Cadillac of commodes. With its sleekly sculpted basin, high-tech control panel, automatic lid, heated seat and built-in bidet, the “Neorest” is the sort of lavatory that would surely be used by James Bond. Or so Kunio Harimoto, the boss of Toto, believes.
Toto, based in Japan, is one of the biggest bathroom- and kitchen-ceramics companies in the world. It earns around ¥500 billion ($5 billion) a year, over one-third of that from lavatories and related accessories alone. It is best known for its “Washlet” range including the Neorest, which in addition to all its other functions hides odours and plays sounds like running water or birdsong to drown out embarrassing noises. Introduced in 1980, such sophisticated lavatories have become a national institution, found in 70% of Japanese homes. Until recently more households had one than had a computer. Toto, as the market leader and technological pioneer, sells 1.5m of them a year…
They haven’t caught on here yet, though.
In America, where bidets are considered effete if not downright twisted, Toto sells fewer than 2,000 fancy lavatories a year (although they are beloved by film stars such as Charlie Sheen and Whoopi Goldberg, among others). In Europe, too, it faces formidable obstacles, including a dense thicket of national regulations. They cover everything from the use of bronze or brass in the fixtures (depending on how “hard” or “soft” the local water is) to the degree of water pressure that the lavatory is capable of withstanding. The panoply of rules destroys economies of scale while protecting domestic manufacturers, explains Mr Harimoto, as Toto must produce different lavatories for each European country. It took the firm’s staff a full year to redesign the products to meet all these regulations, he laments.
Moreover, high-tech lavatories succeeded in Japan for unique reasons. Houses are generally small and many generations live together. Bathrooms are often the only place where there is any privacy, so homeowners are willing to spend more on them. Dwellings are kept cold in winter, so a warm seat is priceless. And lavatories like the Washlet appeal to Japanese fetishes for both gadgets and cleanliness.
And then there’s another problem: American houses don’t have a wall socket behind the bowl.
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