Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When it comes to our backsides, why are we so backwards?

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Some of us sit on elevated thrones, while others squat above holes. Some of us cleanse ourselves with dry paper, while others employ a nearby pitcher of water.

Perhaps most notably: Some of us -- let's call them "the Japanese" -- have invented a magical toilet seat, which transforms the act of excretion into a technologically enhanced pleasure ritual.

You may have heard about these Japanese toilet seats. Perhaps you've experimented with one on a trip to Tokyo. They boast remote controls, heated seats and bidet functions. Some models play whooshing white noise in an effort to obscure other, zestier sounds.

Toto, the leading brand, introduced its Washlet in 1982, and now more than 70 per cent of Japanese homes feature a toilet seat with enhanced capabilities. (Meanwhile, only 30 per cent have dishwashers.)

For some reason, we in North America have not yet boarded this fancy-toilet-seat train.

Given how often we use our toilets, and how much money we happily spend outfitting other corners of our houses with all manner of technologically advanced appliances, the lack of traction here for Toto seems curious.

I wondered: What do the Japanese know that we don't? To find out, I borrowed a top-of-the-line Washlet S350e from Toto and installed it in my bathroom.

Installation was no big deal. You remove your existing toilet seat and replace it with the new one. I did this myself, in about 20 minutes.

I did occasionally bump my skull against porcelain, but I managed to shut off the water flow to my toilet tank, unscrew the flexible pipe that connects to the spigot in the wall, and screw in the adaptor valve Toto provides.

Now water would be routed not only to the tank but also to the toilet seat's bidet nozzle and its separate bowl-cleaning sprayer.

I slid the batteries into the remote control and voila: All at once, my bathroom became a realm of surprise and delight. Press a button and the toilet seat lifts itself, hands-free. Press the button again and the seat smoothly descends into place, ready for action.

As it senses my approach, the Washlet sprays the inside of the toilet bowl with a preparatory mist of electrolyzed water -- ensuring that, as the manual somewhat primly explains, "dirt" will not stick.

Prim readers can avert their eyes here: We now must describe the Washlet's more intimate functions. Capabilities that one may experience only after one has dropped trou.

First, there is the heated seat. This is the sort of thing you don't realize you need in your life until you've tried it and immediately decide you can no longer live without it.

It is truly a pleasure to press your hind flesh to an oval of cosy warmth, instead of receiving a mild, chilly shock. Using the Washlet's remote, you can adjust the seat's temperature up or down until your haunches are happy.

When the time comes, the bidet function is also at your command. This is of course the killer app of the Washlet. The "money shot." What separates the Toto from other toilet seats. It's also something that we, as North Americans, seem to be collectively intimidated by and/or squeamish about.

What lies behind our general discomfort with moist butt-cleaning? Do we feel that dry toilet paper is properly penitent -- a fair punishment for our nasty, corporeal doings?

Is it that we're embarrassed to devote special attention to this part of our bodies? That we feel it's weird or deviant to expend additional time, or money, or effort tending to our backsides? Is it that we're ashamed to let others see our bidets, as this would imply that we do indeed have anuses and that they are occasionally sub-pristine?

Look no further than the disappointing sales of moist toilet tissue to see how freaked out we are by the thought of using anything beyond good old dry toilet paper.

Cottonelle's latest ads for its moist, flushable wipes feature a British woman who wants you to "talk about your bum."

Somehow her accent, and her cutesy toddler vocabulary, are defamiliarizing enough to disarm the folks she cajoles in the ads.

But the fact we require a foreign advocate just to make us even consider a moistened wipe is suggestive of the myriad societal obstacles inherent in this mission.

And indeed, efforts to market moist toilet paper in North America have been a failure so far, according to the research I could find. The stuff represents only three per cent of toilet paper sales, and growth has been stagnant.

People in other parts of the world think we're insane to use only dry bumwad. Go to South or East Asia, in regions with squat toilets, and you'll always find a small tub of water or a garden hose (a.k.a. the "bum gun") to spray yourself clean with.

Even here, when we change an infant's diaper, we recognize the utility of moisture. No parent would use dry paper instead of a moist wipe. Yet most of us deny our adult selves this basic comfort.

The problem for Toto: You don't yet know that you want that nether-feeling a bidet provides. You can't even conceive of it, until you've tried it.

And therein lies the problem. Must Toto provide a showroom with test drives? I confess I do not envy the firm's marketing department. But their cause is just, and I believe, in time, it will wash away all of our doubts.

 

-- Slate

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2014 A1

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