TOTO toilet photo 1

How Japan’s music-playing, water-spraying TOTO toilets took over the world

TOTO toilet photo 1
CNN  — 

I will always remember the first time I walked into a Tokyo bathroom and, with the automatic lift of its lid, a Japanese “smart toilet” happily greeted me. It didn’t end there.

Mounted to the wall was a panel of buttons, illustrated by stick men and symbols open to wild interpretation. It transpired that they controlled functions such as toilet seat heating, the water pressure level of the electronic bidet, and music to cover, er, embarrassing noises. I had just one question: Which one was for the flush?

Japan is now so notorious for its complicated “smart toilets” that earlier this year the Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association standardized the pictograms on such controls to prevent foreign visitors, in particular, being accidentally squirted in the face when groping for the flush.

So how did Japan become the world’s most sophisticated innovator in lavatories? It’s all down to one company: TOTO, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Journey to the West

In 1903, Japanese inventor Kazuchika Okura made a journey to the West. Dazzled by the gleaming white ceramic toilet bowls of Europe, he returned home determined to modernize Japanese bathrooms, which still consisted of outdoors squat toilets with no sewerage system.

By 1914, he had produced the first Western-style flush toilet in Japan, and in 1917 he founded the Toyo Toki Company – to be renamed TOTO in 1970. In the decades that followed, TOTO became a household name for quality toilets. But it wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that the company really started to innovate.