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Japan high-tech toilet maker eyes global throne
Written by: Kyoko Hasegawa – Nov. 19, 2012
HONG KONG, Nov 19, 2012 (AFP) – They are found in more than two-thirds of Japanese households and visitors to the country have marvelled at their heated seats, posterior shower jets and odour-masking function.
But for the company that has sold over 30 million high-tech toilets, commonly known as Washlets, global lavatory domination remains elusive, especially among shy US consumers.
“It’s because of the cultural taboo over talking about toilets,” said Hiromichi Tabata, head of the international division at Washlet-maker TOTO, a company that also makes bath tubs, kitchen taps, basins and plumbing fixtures.
“Americans avoid talking about those kinds of things so we can’t expect success from word-of-mouth, even if they recognise our products are excellent.
“Many celebrities say they love the Washlet when they visit Japan, but the fervour is temporary,” he added.
Pop diva Madonna gushed about Japanese culture during a 2005 visit and pointed to the Washlet as a key draw, saying “I’ve missed the heated toilet seats” — the kind of free marketing most companies dream about.
For a nation that claims globally recognised brand names such as Sony and Toyota, the Washlet’s relative lack of overseas presence comes as a surprise to many foreign visitors, even if they’re initially baffled by its dizzying array of functions and Japanese signage.
In technology and hygiene-obsessed Japan, where restaurants provide a steaming hot towel for customers’ hands, they’re found in public toilets, office lavatories and over 70 percent of Japanese households.
“We thought that Japanese people, who are clean freaks, would like the idea of the Washlet,” said spokeswoman Atsuko Kuno.
But when it hit the market in the booming 1980s, the high-tech toilet wasn’t an immediate success in conservative Japan either.
Some viewers were irate over a 1982 television commercial for the newly-released Washlet which featured a girl trying to wipe black paint off her hand with paper, making a mess in the process.
“Paper won’t fully clean it,” she told viewers. “It’s the same with your bottom.”
But the provocative marketing eventually paid off by putting the unique toilets into the minds of consumers.
TOTO designed its Washlet by asking hundreds of its employees to test a toilet and mark, using a string stretched across the bowl and a piece of paper, their preferred location for the water jet target area.
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