By Michael Fitzpatrick
FORTUNE -- Say what you will about the Japanese, but they can lay claim to the world's cleanest posteriors. For this, they have a technological wonder to thank -- the washlet.
After years of squat lavatories where your toilet slippers -- yes, Japan has special slippers for toilets -- could disappear into rank and primitive plumbing, the Japanese have created a filth-free temple to techno-power and want to share it with the world.
Some call it the washlet, others the space lavvy or smart loo, but all of these appliances sport a panel by the lavatory that controls automatic bidet- style cleansing with warm water and warm air, doing away with the need for toilet paper altogether. Prices range from about $650 to nearly $2,000 and are lusted over by the likes of Madonna and Whoopi Goldberg.
Despite high prices and very different attitudes to bodily functions, washlets are finding success outside of Japan and even in the U.S. where, until recently, bidets were once viewed as singularly European and symbols of sybaritic depravity. It may come as a surprise, perhaps, as the original bidet technology was American -- designed for people with disabilities and the elderly.
Leading the charge to deliver smart loos to the world is Japan's Toto. "Basically, we're the Apple (AAPL) computers of toilets," says a spokesman. The company has cleaned up at home and is now tackling the Americas. It already faces competition, though. Kohler's Numi, which retails for around $5,000, features hand-free seat opening tech, Bluetooth-enabled music streaming capabilities, and a touchscreen remote.
"Over 30 million washlet sales later and the washlet's popularity is taking off all over the world, not only in Japan. In North America, our Washlet sales generally grow about 15% per year, which is considerably more than the overall plumbing fixtures industry tends to grow," claims David M. Krakow president of Toto USA. Toto introduced Washlets to the United States in the 1990s. "We consider this product category to be something Toto owns," he says.
Toto might well brag. With annual sales of $5.1 billion and over 20,000 employees in 69 offices globally, Toto is the world's largest plumbing manufacturer. Toto did not offer U.S. washlet sales figures.
You might say today's high-tech privies are a product of the delicacy of Japanese manners and taste. Toto's washlets include oscillating and pulsating streams of water, seats with adjustable temperatures, warm air dryers, seats with silver oxide to fight bacteria, deodorizers, remote controls, a proximity sensor with automatic flushing, and automatic opening and closing seats. The latter is being dubbed the "marriage savior." There are even odor-fighting tiles and fly decoys made of thermal ink for urinals.
Most Japanese now cannot live without such tech. A prodigious 73% of Japanese homes have a high-tech toilet -- that is double the average of dishwashers in Japanese homes to give you an idea of priorities in a country where "clean" is synonymous "beautiful." So ubiquitous are high-tech toilets that some Japanese, unable to cope with Western paper-only lavatories, take a hand-sized portable electric bidet with them when traveling.
In this gadget-loving country, it seems only natural to the Japanese that technology should be harnessed to create a truly modern lavatorial experience. It all started with an elementary warming of the toilet seat. Since then, Japanese plumbing companies have been loading whistle-and-bell features onto their toilets over the years, and it has reached its zenith in the washlet. Some special-issue toilets even analyze your urine, take your blood pressure, and send the statistics to your doctor via a built-in modem. The latest models can be controlled via smartphone.
The basic washlet is now at the heart of a fierce battle to bring advanced technology to the final frontier of the home -- the bathroom. But, despite Toto's bombastics, sales are still modest in the U.S. Steve Scheer, president of Brondell, a San Francisco startup that manufactures smart loos, says it's very much a niche market at present, accounting for only 1% of total toilet sales in the U.S. But things are looking up. "While we had about 5-6 years of very flat sales, the last four years have shown substantial growth for Brondell and the product category overall and we expect this trend to continue," he says.
Janice Costa, editor of Kitchen & Bath Design News, argues that the recent economic upturn has been good for the washlet and its kin, and that the market may be growing at the very high end. "Technology is increasingly gaining a foothold in the bathroom and we're seeing it in everything from programmable showers with blue-tooth-enabled shower heads to high-tech toilets," she says. "There is more interest in high-tech bath products overall, with the greatest growth in water conservation and luxury features (i.e. heated seats)."
Meanwhile, Japanese bathroom fixture companies continue to snap up foreign brands -- Tokyo-based Lixil bought out American Standard recently, and is establishing itself in Europe with the purchase of German bathroom-fittings maker Grohe Group for about $4.1 billion -- and promotion of its techno-toilets will be ramped up.
Toto believes the American public, just like the Japanese before them, will adjust gradually to the new fixtures. It took 10 hard years to convince Japanese they needed electro-commodes in the 1980s. Lixil is bullish about its U.S prospects.
"It is just a matter of time before more Americans experience the comfort and hygiene associated with using the advanced technology bidet toilets that Japan has grown to love for nearly 50 years," says Paul Burghardt, senior regional sales manager of Lixil USA.
Burghardt may be right. One might recall an episode of The Simpsons where Homer encounters a Japanese toilet that announces: "Welcome. I am honored to accept your waste." Converting the nation's great unwashed to this new convenience may be well into its first flush already.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Paul Burghardt as the president of Lixil USA. Burghardt is a senior regional sales manager.
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