“Basically, we're the Apple Computers of toilets”
The first time the gentle stream of warm water hits your derrière, it’s quite startling. By the second time the water hits its mark, you’re a convert. Why on earth would you use your hand and paper, when a machine can pleasantly and perfectly wash your bum? These exquisite toilets are everywhere in Japan and yet can barely be found in the United States.
Toto G500. Image credit: 3rings.
For anyone who has traveled through Japan, one of the greatest cultural experiences is discovering a modern Japanese toilet. These toilets, known as “washlets”, have many amazing features - the most notable of which is they render toilet paper obsolete. After using one of these washlets for a while, you can't help but wonder why the American toilet experience is so primitive. Why has technological progress not eviscerated the need for toilet paper in America like it has in Japan?
What is a Japanese Toilet?
The innovation in modern Japanese toilets is actually in the seat. These electric toilet seats spray water to cleanse one’s bottom or female genital area. The spray of water is initiated by a remote control panel near or attached to the seat.
An entry level Japanese toilet seat - Washlet B100.
In addition, these toilet seats can come with a lot of bells and whistles: heated seats and spray, pressure sensors to only activate when someone is sitting on it, dryers, motion sensors to open the lid when someone walks in the room, the ability to speak, and brushed steel luxury remote controls - almost any feature you can imagine actually.
A pretty standard remote control for a washlet. Image credit: Wikipedia.
What if there is a power outage and your electric toilet seat is rendered inert? You can still use toilet paper and flush it like a regular toilet. In fact, you don’t have to use the bidet functions of the Japanese toilet at all, but you will because they are awesome! Even still, many users of bidets use some amount of toilet paper, especially for drying purposes.
History of the Super Toilet in Japan
A whopping 72% of Japanese households now have bidet-style modern toilets. In 1980, the Japanese company Toto introduced its Washlet G Series and the modern toilet was born. Today the term Washlet, while technically a trademarked term by Toto, is colloquially used to refer to any bidet-style toilet seat.
What was most notable to this author when visiting Japan was that these toilets are everywhere. You could be hiking for hours at a mountain outside of Tokyo and at the very summit, discover the toilets in the public bathrooms are nicer than the toilets in the home of the average billionaire in the United States. In fact, the toilets in public facilities in Japan were almost all better than any toilet the author had ever encountered in America.
Why so unsuccessful in the US?
And yet, the effort to spread the washlet to the United States has been dismal thus far. Toto, after making a concerted effort to enter the US market, has made almost zero headway. Today, if you want to try a washlet in San Francisco, Toto can point you to exactly one restaurant where you can try it out. The Googleplex is said to have washlets, but how many of us have ever encountered a Japanese toilet in America?
In San Francisco, there’s even a toilet startup trying to crack open this market! Brondell, co-founded by serial entrepreneur, MIT-grad and VC at Freestyle Ventures, David Samuels. Brondell has been slowly making inroads into the US bidet market since its founding in 2003. We spoke to Steve Scheer, President of Brondell, who informed us that while the USA bidet market was “very, very low – perhaps at 1%,” the company was still plugging away, growing its sales 20%+ per year.
We asked Steve, why aren’t Japanese style toilets mainstream in the US?
“For Americans here in the US, the biggest issues are personal experience with these products and a major reluctance to discuss bathroom issues or change ingrained habits. You wouldn’t imagine how many people giggle nervously or say “gross” when we try to educate them about the advantages of the bidet seat, yet these are the same people that are still using paper – a much inferior way to cleanse oneself.”
People that do have Japanese toilets in the US rave about them though. From Amazon reviews for a popular washlet:
“Toto has perfected hiney hygiene.”
“Believe me, after using one of these for a year you will consider the $600 and some odd dollars it costs as the best bargain of your life. You will also wonder why everyone else is not using one and what took you so long to buy one. You might begin to view your neighbors as bathroom neanderthals.”
“Going to the bathroom has become an enjoyable experience.”
Beloved product. Huge market. No demand in the United States.
How much does it cost to get a Japanese toilet in your house?
The good news is that you can install a washlet in your house fairly easily! You can buy a Japanese style toilet seat on Amazon from $600-1200. To set it up, install the seat like you would a normal toilet seat. Hook the seat up to the water input to your toilet (which is apparently very easy to do). The last thing is to plug the seat into a three prong GFCI grounded outlet (don’t want to get electrocuted!). Getting this outlet installed by an electrician will cost ~$500.
So, all in, you can expect to pay about $1,100 to $1,700 for your new Japanese style commode. According to one Amazon reviewer, their electric seat costs them in $37 a year in energy expenses. According to Treehugger, the electricity and additional water costs are minimal, but the reduction in toilet paper used is dramatic.
If you’d like to try out the bidet-lifestyle without spending much money or installing a new electrical outlet, you can purchase a mechanical bidet-style toilet seat attachment for under $100. Just plug it into the water input to your toilet and clean way using cold water! The reviews for these toilets on Amazon are fairly positive so it might just be worth checking out.
A $36 bidet attachment - via Amazon.
And so, while fans of Japanese toilets are convinced of their merits, the product languished in relative obscurity in the US. Perhaps the product is waiting to find its great marketer that can convince Americans that using toilet paper is antiquated. A Steve Jobs of toilets, if you will. Or at the very least, a Don Draper.
Surely many entrepreneurs can sympathize with the plight of bidet manufacturers trying to sell in the United States; they've built an amazing product, now how the heck are they supposed get some users?
This post was written by Rohin Dhar. Follow him on Twitter here or on Google Plus. In the process writing this post, he realized he's been misspelling the word toilet his whole life ("toliet"). Get the latest from Priceonomics on Facebook or Twitter.