I spent the last three days talking to dozens of people about pooping.
The ease with which I can discuss the act of defecation is somewhat of a paradox — because I am exceedingly bathroom shy. Silent office restrooms with stall doors that end a foot and a half off the ground are my worst enemy, while the best workspace toilet experience I’ve ever had was, oddly, at a WeWork, where the barriers were floor to ceiling, there was always music playing, and each stall came equipped with its own bottle of air freshener spray.
Yet such restrooms are rare. In the United States, at least, we’re far more likely to encounter cramped, quiet bathrooms with terrible two-ply toilet paper and dribble on the seat. Even at home, where our bathrooms are typically more comfortable than what you’ll find at the mall or an office building, we’re limited to a basic setup: a plain porcelain bowl, with maybe two flush settings, beside a roll of whatever toilet paper you’re willing to invest in. God help you if you run out.
“Imagine a world where you only need to wipe once”
But it doesn’t have to be this way! All over the world, restrooms are blessed with more humane configurations. In some places, they come equipped with hoses so the user can more easily cleanse themselves after use. In others, such as France, bathrooms have bidets which perform the same function as the hose, only hands-free. And in some regions of Asia, most notably Japan, high-tech toilets with sound effects, heated seats, several bidet functions, and air dryers are as ubiquitous as automatic faucets, as Jane, a New York-based freelance calligrapher who lived in the Kagawa region of Japan for four years and requested that only her first name be used, told me.
“Imagine a world where you only need to wipe once, and that’s to take care of the excess water,” she says. “Where you’re not shocked in the morning by cold porcelain. Where you can let your bowels howl in public and face your co-workers at the sink because the bathroom is filled with sounds of artificial flushing (or whatever cute melody that given toilet is programmed to play) and you can hardly hear anything else. A country that uses these toilets would never see an /r/relationships thread about men leaving actual shit on their undergarments and bedsheets.”
In the U.S., though, such features are rare. I just used my first bidet, and it was such a revelation that I even more firmly believe that high-tech toilets — or, at the very least, bidets — should become the norm here in the States. Certain cultural and logistical barriers prevent Americans from fully embracing the high-tech toilet, but as we increasingly adopt other high-tech home items, such as smart air conditioners and even refrigerators, it’s possible that advanced toilets will follow.
“My first encounter with a Japanese water squirting toilet was a revelation,” says @jammy_sod, a Twitter user and fan of high-tech toilets who asked to remain anonymous to speak in detail about his bathroom habits. He was at a Japanese restaurant in New York called Sakagura, when he decided to “try out the waterworks,” that his friends were excitedly discussing at the table. He found it soothing and somewhat pleasurable, and the experience reinforced his lifelong belief that using toilet paper to wipe is insufficient. “After all, if you tread in dog poo, you wouldn’t be satisfied with wiping it off your shoe without water,” he says. The experience was so profound that he wanted to retrofit his toilet at home with a similar contraption, but his wife wasn’t on board.
The actual health benefits of bidets are up for debate, mostly because, as Wirecutter described, studies need a control group to show that the treatment in question is better than a placebo — and it’s really difficult to spray water at people’s butts without them noticing. Still, there’s some evidence that bidets are better for people with hemorrhoids or “pruritus ani,” also known as irritated buttholes, as the stream of water produces less friction that a wad of toilet paper. And some people who recently gave birth may find that bidets can be gentler on the entire bottom region.
It isn’t only the cleansing, potentially healthier bidet features that people love about high-tech toilets. Tori, a New York-based marketing consultant, told me she likes the sound effects that many high-tech toilets have. “I feel like that would make pooping at work a little less time consuming if you like to be alone for that,” she says. And Chié Dambara, who grew up in Japan and now owns Yoko Matcha, a matcha bar in Miami, says that “cold toilet seats in the winter are so sad.” She doesn’t have a high-tech toilet at her home in Miami, though. “Japan is simply a more advanced country,” she says.
American cultural stigma against the bidet has historically stalled its popularity here. As Maria Teresa Hart reported in a fascinating 2018 Atlantic feature on the history of the bidet, most Americans first encountered the appliance in brothels during WWII, forever cementing in their minds the association between sex work and bidets. And for many years, bidets were regarded as a form of birth control — to be clear, they aren’t — which convinced Americans that the devices were immoral.
“Cold toilet seats in the winter are so sad”
This cultural roadblock extends to the way houses are designed, which makes it difficult to integrate high-tech toilets or toilet seats in American bathrooms, as several acquaintances who wish they could install their own told me. Many homes in the States lack the toilet-adjacent outlets critical for those looking to install high-tech toilets powered by electricity. And then, of course, Americans often live in homes with multiple bathrooms, and aren’t willing to spend a lot of money on multiple toilets.
“Here in the U.S., we have lots of land, where we’ll live in a 3,500-square-foot home, and have bedrooms and parts of the home we’ll visit every 3–4 months,” says Bill Strang, president of corporate strategy and e-commerce for Japanese toilet brand TOTO. “There’s a plus side to that — more toilets — but the downside is that they put a lot of less expensive products into those spaces.” In Japan, he says, many people live in smaller homes and, because there’s less space to fill, they’re more willing to spend money on the items they need to purchase.
Still, Strang says, when he manages to convince Americans, even “rough and tumble guys” who are “a little anxious about getting sprayed somewhere in their nether regions” to at least try a high-tech TOTO toilet, they often end up purchasing one. Part of TOTO’s growth strategy in the United States is partnering with hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs so that potential consumers have the chance to experience their products. These people often leave reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other websites extolling the virtues of the toilets, post photos on Instagram of the blinged-out restroom, and tell their friends.
It works out for the restaurants, too, as Joe Conti, owner of New York-based Japanese restaurant Shuraku, knows all too well. He says that on the first night of opening, he witnessed a couple at the chef’s counter whispering excitedly about the restaurant’s TOTO toilet. “You’re thinking about the menu, the drinks, the colors, the smells, and everything, and one of the first things I hear is people talking about the toilet,” he says. “It’s been very consistent. We have people who post Instagram pics of our toilet, because it kind of lights up and the seat moves up by itself, it greets you.”
These efforts appear to be working: TOTO is now the number three toilet company in the U.S., Strang tells me. And according to the BRG Building Solutions’ October 2018 North American Shower Toilet & Bidet Seat Markets report, bidet seat and toilet sales are expected to grow 15% each year through 2021.
It’s a hopeful future for people like me, who have anxiety or troubled bowels and appreciate the sound effects many high-tech toilets make, as well as the heightened feeling of cleanliness that bidets bring. While I personally won’t be attaching a TOTO washlet to my own toilet anytime soon (my apartment, which I otherwise adore, only has a single outlet on the opposite side of the space as the toilet) I envy those who have the ability. They’re not cheap — the beginning TOTO is $250, and a lower-end “SmartBidet” goes for $200 — and there are significant cultural and architectural hurdles to their full, nationwide adoption. But I’m crossing my fingers that as other pricey home appliances increase in popularity, high-tech toilets won’t be far behind.