To the outside observer, Japan's love affair with high-tech toilets might seem perplexing. From exhibitions lauding their evolution to competitions pitting leading lavatory manufacturers against one another, Japan sure likes to push its heated-seat, water-spewing derrière cleansers into the spotlight.
But all this isn't just a superficial quirk. Japan's predilection for toilet technologies actually carries some serious social weight too. Ministers in Japan have plans to improve toilet tech both at home and abroad, and in doing so, they want to help more women in developing economies with sanitation and security issues.
At last month's World Assembly of Women (WAW) in Tokyo, Japan, Haruko Arimura, a minister appointed in October 2014 to push forward women's empowerment—and dubbed the "minister of toilets" by Japanese magazine Shukan Shincho—was quoted stressing the importance of bringing discussions on toilets to policymakers worldwide.
"Defecation is related to human dignity and one of the most fundamental actions in our life," she said in a report in Today Online. "Although there are diverse discussions in public forums and policies relating to food, there have [been] few opportunities to discuss the issue of defecation."
It's a fair point. For women in developing countries, lack of access to toilets can sometimes prove fatal. In recent years, some of India's rape cases have been attributed to a lack of in-house toilets that force women in Indian villages to defecate in open areas. According to a BBC report, most cases of rape against women in India's Bihar state happen when they go to defecate in public.
Such dangers were corroborated by Zainab Hawa Bangura, a Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, who stressed at WAW that sanitation was as much a security, development, and humanitarian issue as it was a health one. "It affects women disproportionately in any society," she said.
"Japan has high-level technology. Such technology should be utilised to promote women's empowerment through improving toilet facilities."
At the conference, proving that toilets in Japan weren't all about high-tech washlets, Japanese sanitary company Lixil Corporation demoed toilets designed specifically for rural households.
Named the "SaTo hygienic toilet pan," this toilet comes equipped with a trap door that opens to let urine and faeces through, then closes again. Such designs come in handy where hole-in-the ground latrines are still common, and help reduce odours and the spread of diseases. But aside from the sanitary benefits, the main aim here is to make sure that affordable, safe and secure toilet facilities are installed closer to home.
"Japan has high-level technology. Such technology should be utilised to promote women's empowerment through improving toilet facilities," said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who specifically referenced the need for safe and secure facilities at the WAW conference.
There's no reason to export Japan's high-tech, multi-modal heated toilets on a global scale. But if ministers have their way, some of Japan's more humble toilet tech designs might help more people gain access to the basic sanitation needs that most of us take for granted.
Meanwhile, high-end luxury toilet tech still holds the national imagination. Just last month, Toto, a leading toilet manufacturer, inaugurated a toilet exhibition to chart developments in toilet tech from the minimal to the phenomenal. And just yesterday, Abe—taken over with 2020 Japan Olympic fever and the need to cater for an influx of international visitors—picked the country's most stellar 28 lavatories out of 380 competitors.
Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.