The Japanese Toilet Edition

On innovation, bathrooms, and bragging rights

Colin here. Most travelers to Japan will remember their first encounter with the futuristic TOTO toilet. Checking into a hotel like the Park Hyatt Tokyo after a long flight and encountering a toilet more advanced than the plane you flew in on can leave you feeling like US civilization is stuck in the stone age. As you approach the toilet, the lid raises with a gentle glow to illuminate your way. The seat is heated for those chillier winter months, and a console of buttons allows you to dial in specific preferences including the pressure on calibrated water spray that keeps things, shall we say, hygienic. The brand has seemingly thought of everything—from ambient sounds to mask unsavory sounds in more public environments, to anti-germ treatments, and even a dryer function. This sophisticated approach to the bathroom is ensconced across Japanese culture, with the seats are even featured in the national carrier, Japan Air Lines, as well as ANA (which introduced the product in 2007 on its Dreamliners). 

Owning a TOTO is a wink at the international arbitrage of consumer culture: finding the best of something in a far-flung place and making it yours. It is a status symbol to have one in your newly renovated Wooster street loft, imbuing your new bathroom with worldliness and sophistication for your guests. Oh, this? I picked up the habit in Japan. 

Why is this interesting? 

But it turns out that the sales process for TOTO to sell to American consumers is a long, and convoluted one. One that defies the traditional purchase funnel taught to marketing undergraduates. According to the Times (from 2015): 

Toto doesn’t sell its washlets in big-box stores like Home Depot, preferring the showroom experience instead….Most washlet owners, then, are converted after trying one out in the world. At a boutique hotel, say, or on a trip to Asia.

Such was the case with Robert Aboulache. Before he and his family went on a vacation to Japan, he said, friends who had visited the country told him he would love the toilets. “I thought, ‘How great can the toilets be?’” Mr. Aboulache said. “They were amazing. Some have noisemakers to cover up the sound. You can pivot that little sprayer. The water can be heated or not. We got home, and I thought, ‘This is not the same.’”

Three days later, Mr. Aboulache went online and bought a Toto washlet, which he installed in the shared upstairs bathroom of his home in Los Angeles as a surprise for his wife and son.

Indeed, it seems that the catalyst for sales is often just exposure to the brand in Asia-centric travel which makes those Japanese airline integrations more strategic than they seem! 

To note: COVID was also a sales accelerant for old school bidets, as well as the futuristic toilets in the US, amidst fears of runs on toilet paper. But overall, the future has failed to truly take hold on American shores. Our collective toilet dynamic seems akin to still using a Nokia phone when you know that an iPhone 13 Pro exists. Could the stranglehold of Kohler or the classic American Standard toilet be too strong? Or maybe it is truly the long game of brand building and sales penetration, one that TOTO seems happy to play. (CJN)

Comic of the Day:

Speaking of toilets, the latest Drawing Links from friend of WITI Edith Zimmerman is all about installing a toilet seat. (NRB)

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).