Recently I attended an academic conference where the keynote speaker had just arrived in Japan for the first time. As a way of warming up her audience she told them how much she had been looking forward to all the high technology that Japan had to offer, and indeed, she said, she had not been disappointed.
As I waited for her to continue I wondered what Japanese technology could possibly have impressed her. Perhaps her image of Japan had been robots, flying cars and Artificial Intelligence. But Japan is actually behind the rest of the world by a decade or more. Manufacturing, Japan's greatest industry, peaked about 1995 and will continue to decline as China builds more and more of everything in the world. The country is decades behind in developments in education, finance, politics and the environment. And as for culture, philosophy and social science, Japanese progress stopped in about ... 1615.
Even in areas like phone technology, where until recently Japan has led the world, domestic companies have been rattled by foreign innovations like the Iphone. So given that the landscape here is more 1984 than Bladerunner, I wondered what could have impressed our keynote speaker.
Turns out it had been the toilet in her hotel room.
The Last Bastion of Japanese high technology. Well, she had a point. A Japanse toilet with all the wingdits is certainly a technological wonder. A panel on the right hand side has so many buttons you can have fun for hours, and a complex instruction manual is often printed under the lid of the toilet. There's bidet for your bottom, another one for the ladies, both with adjustable pressure, some with 'pulses', some indeed with pulses of different patterns. A deodorizer. Sensors to detect when you have finished, so the loo will flush automatically. If you are lucky, a blast of warm air will make toilet paper completely unnecessary.
And now, apparently there are now increasing numbers of 'toilet games' attached to male urinals. These games include a virtual display that the man must 'erase' by using his urine stream as eraser; and a machine that measures the pressure of urine and judges your performance against the previous user. There's also a game with a 'target' that you have to aim for; scores are kept and displayed above the urinal.
I have yet to encounter any of these games but rest assured when I do you will get a full report.
Back to the standard toilet. There's also a 'Sound of the Princess' button, ('ote hime') which has to be one of the weirdest things on the planet. It seems that Japanese women were embarrassed by the sound of ...their pee hitting the water...and were continuously flushing the toilet in order to cover up that sound. So, in the interest of water conservation, toilets are often installed with speakers that play a recorded flushing sound; this is the Sound of the Princess. Nowadays you can even find them in male toilets.
I have always found the 'ote hime' abhorrent and ridiculous. For one, designing, building, installing, using and servicing these machines must be expensive in money and resources. The resources used would certainly include water, as, for example, considerable amounts of water are used in energy production. Secondly, it doesn't even sound like real flushing, it just sounds like a kind of computer-produced white noise half blurred by static. It could never fool anybody.
But the worst part of the Sound of the Princess is its sheer naked absurdity. Who are these women who are embarrassed by the sound of pee hitting water? Why aren't they getting treatment and counselling? What do they want us to believe? That they don't pee? That they are going into the cubicle to read a novel or meditate or smoke a joint or escape through an air vent because they are being chased by Chinese spies that want to steal their DNA and combine it with that of a chimpanzee and make a monstrous hybrid with superhuman strength that can take over the world? What kind of women are they? Do they believe that other women can be convinced that they don't have bodily functions, that they are angels or androids?
This absurd primness, this affected modesty is a cancer in Japanese society. Fear of embarassment affects not only toilets, but sexual and social relations, marriage rates, even language learning success. It helps explain why the Japanese put up with so much and complain so little, and thus end up with such substandard housing, education, working conditions and governments.
On the other hand, you do get great toilets.