Designs That Defined Modern Japan: The Washlet

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, I attended an excellent webinar on the topic ‘Designs That Defined Modern Japan’ by Professor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, and the audience were set the challenge of coming with their own list of 8 Designs That Defined Modern Japan. I have already done two posts (these are not in any particular order or ranking) on the shinkansen and Hello Kitty. This post covers the next of my choices – the Washlet, also known as the Japanese toilet.

That the washlet has become known as ‘the Japanese toilet’ says much to its global impact. It probably also reflects how pervasive it has become in Japan (even found on some Japanese airlines) and how many people (at least up to the COVID 19 pandemic) were visiting Japan, staying in places that had such toilets. For me, when I first visited Japan, it was more common to find the hole in the ground type toilet, although I did have an encounter with a washlet even during my first trip to Japan. I discovered then that it was not great not being able to read kanji and my inquisitive nature meant that I started pressing buttons, leading me to me to be attacked by a jet of water and not being able to switch it off until I, and the WC, had already become soaked. I then used toilet paper to mop up the water, but unfortunately the toilet paper holder was one of those that plays a tune when you take some paper. I’m sure anyone nearby was wondering what was going on.

The ‘Japanese toilet’ was another design, like the shinkansen and Hello Kitty, that was mentioned within the discussion at the end of Kashiwagi’s seminar in relation to items that the audience thought that should be included in the list. And, like Hello Kitty, the washlet also makes an appearance in the Simpson’s episode of 30 Minutes Over Tokyo.

How is it that this design has managed to gain such global impact? What does the adoption of the washlet even tell us about Japanese society? How does society balance up the desires for cleanliness with the issues of very high water consumption that Japanese toilets have or that they further lead to demands for electricity? These may be issues for me to address further in the update to Japan: The Basics.

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