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Open Sesame: The Neorest's lid automatically rises when one approaches it. Ladies need not worry, as the automated seat then waits to see if one needs to sit or stand.

Bidet, Mate

The Japanese already enjoy the healthful, sensual pleasures of the high-tech bidet--will Americans ever learn to love the rinse cycle?

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ALLOW ME to ask a personal question. Does your toilet satisfy you? I mean, does it really satisfy you? If not, a 75-year-old Japanese plumbing company named Toto is gearing up to invade the United States with its Neorest robotic toilet-bidet combo--a product that could only have originated in Japan. Where else would you find a toilet whose lid automatically lifts up whenever one approaches it? A toilet whose Power Catalytic Deodorizer function engages as soon as one finishes business and rises from the seat? A toilet whose superpowered, fully adjustable, aerated warm-water spray (a.k.a. the Washlet) sensually cleanses one's nether regions after the fact?

Toto owns 65 percent of the toilet industry in Japan, and the company is out to introduce Americans to the Japanese technology of robo-hygiene. Packing the most technologically advanced features into the smallest possible physical space--in a way only the Japanese can do--the $5,000 Neorest features a 96.8 degree heated seat, user-regulated front and rear cleansing and an oscillating spray massage, bringing levels of lavatorial luxury to entirely new heights.

No toilet paper is needed, as the heated fan dries your nether regions when all is said and done. And the Neorest's fuzzy-logic circuits actually remember what time of the day or night you prefer to visit the bathroom, so the toilet knows when to go into "power save" mode, when to decrease the seat temperature and when to turn off the water heater. Now that's high-tech hygiene. Throw in a low-flush water-saving system, and the machine represents a dazzling advance in bathroom opulence.

Toto officially released the Neorest in the United States in mid-October, and one can already spot Toto infomercials on the airwaves, deeming the machine "the most advanced and luxurious bathroom product ever made." The company is banking on Americans finally realizing that cleaning their posteriors a la Classic Car Wash works much better than toilet paper alone. No need to squeeze the Charmin; just hit the "rear-cleansing" button on the wireless LCD control panel, and you're ready to rock.

That $5,000 does not include installation. "It would take probably a couple of hours to [install] it," says Marcy Skinner of Los Altos Hardware, who has sold three of the toilets so far. "So, I would figure a few hundred dollars for the installation." You can install the Neorest on your existing plumbing as long as you have a 12-inch rough-in and your water supply is located approximately 11 inches off-center. If the price seems a mite steep, an existing toilet can be retrofitted with the Washlet for $600-$1,200, but the lid won't open automatically.

Been There, Dung That

The Neorest represents the next generation in a long line of advanced Toto bathroom equipment. As with automobiles, cameras and other high-tech gadgets, the Japanese apply to toilets their business philosophy of kaizen, an infinite journey of gradual, continuous, incremental improvement.

First brought to the West's attention in Masaki Imai's Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success, the method involves discarding conventional fixed ideas, questioning current practices and seeking the wisdom of 10 people rather than the knowledge of one--all to achieve continuous improvement in everyday life.

And in Japan, one doesn't find the typical American taboo when it comes to bodily fluids. In the United States, we usually don't like to talk about posterior washes and bathroom hygiene, so it remains to be seen whether or not the Neorest will make the grade. Overly macho American males probably consider a bidet something for Eurotrash wussies. And toilet paper companies might just go out of their way to prevent the Neorest from succeeding.

"This is a country with a Puritan history, so we're uncomfortable with bodily functions," says Lenora Campos, public relations manager for Toto USA Inc. "It's a cultural conundrum in the United States. We would never use [only] dry paper to clean [something] and then consider that [something] clean. And at a very crucial point on the body, we say, 'That's good'--and it's not."

Yes, it will take quite an effort for Americans to shake the taboo. Forget that the Bible itself contains numerous dung references, that the Romans and Egyptians worshipped gods of excrement or that Pliny advocated the use of human manure for fields. We just don't like to talk about such things.

Toilets are a common consumer product, but we can't imagine discussing statistics about which water pressure Americans prefer for their posterior-spray massage. Only in the RE/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids does one find a discussion about whether people actually look at toilet paper after using it.

But Campos remains hopeful that Americans will shed their Puritanical instinct and realize that our toilet technology is simply in the dark ages. "We're finding that as U.S. consumers come in contact with [the Neorest] and are educated about the benefits of the Washlet that they are readily adopting it," she explained. "Certainly there is a cultural hurdle, a challenge, but [the Neorest] makes so much sense, and it's something that people simply haven't thought about. Once they do think about it, it kind of sells itself."

To break the taboo, Toto has invested $1.5 million in an advertising campaign for the Washlet that broaches the unspoken subject in one- and two-minute television spots. Produced by the Portland, Ore., advertising agency Respond2, the commercials open with actress Rachael Reenstra asking, "Why is it that when it comes to the one place that really needs to be clean, you rely on this [toilet paper]?" and then devolve into metaphors, including a dirt-covered man attempting to wipe his upper body with paper and someone attempting to clean dishes with paper.

Respond2 vice president Jill Taylor says she wanted the ads to be "provocative but tasteful and humorous." She says her agency, which does marketing for other household products and hopes to reach the mass market "by positioning [the Washlet] as something everyone should have," enjoyed the project more than the work her team has done on behalf of TVs and refrigerators. "We have a lot of clients, and we thought this was the most interesting," Taylor says.

Toto hopes to sell $60 million in Neorest units this year. Worldwide, its high-design commode is approaching the $1 billion mark in annual retail sales. Obviously, convincing Americans to upgrade their porcelain thrones would be worth many more billions to the Japanese bowl maker.

Redwood City's Plumbing 'n' Things has a Neorest on display, but they haven't sold a single one yet. "The biggest reaction to it is, I think, surprise more than anything selse," says Scott Denny, a salesman at the store. "Just looking at it and trying to figure out what it does and that type of thing. And of course, [people are] shocked by the price of it."

"We've got a little pool going," he continued. "We're just teased about the idea of seeing who will be the first one of us to sell one of the $5,000 toilets."

At Fixtures & Faucets Wholesale Plumbing in San Mateo, the scenario is somewhat different, as they've sold five Neorests. "People get impressed when they see if for the first time," says salesman Archie Santos. "They think it's a little high at first, but it's a good toilet. It's different. Everything is all in one unit."

Flush Times

Here in Silicon Valley, where computer-controlled gadgets play a dominant role--for good or bad--in nearly everyone's daily lives, the Neorest just might be the next big thing.

"[Silicon Valley] is a very forward-thinking community, and I think they would immediately see the benefit," Campos continues. "It's really re-examining old notions. It's just a cultural leap forward. It [may seem] very, very strange in the United States, but it's partly because we're a country without a history of the bidet."

Campos sees the marketing of the new technology as "cultural change," a subject the publicist/Ph.D. studied as part of her postgraduate studies in English Renaissance literature and drama.

Now, $5,000 for a toilet-bidet combo may sound a trifle rich. For that much dough, one can buy enough toilet paper at Costco for small city. So one can only hope that the price will eventually come down. Campos won't say either way. "We don't want to be overly reductive and [speculate about future prices]," she ventures cautiously. "The first point of contact is most probably up-market consumers. But there is certainly an opportunity for this to move quickly into the mainstream."

"The long-range trend in the industry is to move toward a derm-less bathroom," adds Campos. "No skin touching anything. More and more elements in the bathroom will be centrally operated. There will come a time--and this is long-term--when you can move through the bathroom, and more and more uses will be built into fixtures, and more water conservation will be built in. You'll have centrally operated faucetry. You may have a situation where the shower has a learning cycle--you program it, and it knows what temperature you want the water."

Remember how expensive DVDs were when they first came out? Now, they're ubiquitous and cost next to nothing. Maybe in a few years, the Neorest's "rear-cleansing" button will be just as common a household item as a can opener.

"It's good hygiene for everybody, from cradle to grave," declares Campos. "It's a technology that has extremely wide applications. So in our marketing strategy, our goal is to communicate that benefit."

End Users

But there may be other benefits of Neorest's rear-cleansing massage as well. On July 29, 2002--when sales of toilets with built-in bidets were skyrocketing in Japan--the Mainichi Daily News quoted proctologist Masahiro Takano, who said that firing a stream of water into the backside can be an effective treatment for constipation. "It's like how a mother cat licks a kitten's anus to stimulate it and expel its wastes," the article quoted Takano as saying. Leave it to the Japanese to couch even the most elemental functions in a poetic simile.

The same article also cited stories of Japanese women using bidets for sexual stimulation. One woman named Akiko explicitly described to the weekly magazine Shukan Gendai how she sits backward on the bowl and adjusts the water pressure to increase the intensity of the thrill.

"Of course, I could always use adult toys," she said. "But they're fairly expensive, and it's not like I could go out and buy them by myself. I could order them over the Internet, but it's always embarrassing when they're delivered. I like the Washlet because I don't have to care about that stuff. I get myself off on the Washlet a couple of times a week."

Sex counselor Yobun Tomina also spoke to Shukan Gendai and recommended the Washlet for masturbation: "It's clean, the stimulation is soft, and they're handy. The genitalia do have microbes that clean naturally, and there's a chance that these could be washed away. But I don't think that there's anybody out there who'd keep doing it for over an hour, so it should be all right."

"It's such a unique full-capacity product," said Campos. "It's something that people will be able to appreciate easily. In other words, there are multiple end users."


Water Works: Entrepreneur Jorge Rebagliati believes that we could save water by switching to bidets.

A Bidet Runs Through It

How we clean ourselves can have a big effect on how we clean the environment

By R. V. Scheide

Ladies and gentlemen, please forgive me, but there's just no polite way to say this: I haven't wiped my ass for more than a month. Since installing a bidet in my bathroom at home, I no longer have to rub myself raw with toilet paper. Instead, I direct a bubbling fountain of cool, soothing Northern California tap water toward my nether region. In seconds, I'm clean as a whistle. Thanks to my new bidet, keeping clean down there is no longer a problem.

But it definitely was a problem at one time, and I know I wasn't alone in sharing it. Who among us has not experienced the nagging itch caused by an inadequately cleansed bottom? Yet serious discussion of the topic is strictly taboo and rarely occurs in our culture, even within academic circles.

Instead of asking whether wiping has failed us as a hygienic technique, we point the stained finger of shame and ridicule at ourselves. I once knew a man nicknamed Skidmark because someone had seen his soiled underwear while he was changing for work in the company locker room. What role, if any, did toilet paper play in his humiliation? No one dared to ask.

It's as if all alternative solutions have been flushed from our minds. Bidets are for sissies like the Japanese and the French. Here in the good old USA, we wipe. We wipe harder, we wipe faster and, most of all, we wipe more. According to toilet-paper industry estimates, it takes 15 million trees annually to satisfy our voracious appetite for butt-wipe. Toilet paper production reached 100 million rolls per day in 2001. One of the latest marketing trends is larger packaging, like the 96-roll bundle offered by discount toilet-paper company ShitBegone (www.shitbegone.com). The company's motto speaks for us all: "Wipe your mind and your ass will follow."

All of this merely compounds what Jorge Rebagliati has come to call our "problem." The entrepreneur grew up using bidets in his native Argentina and, upon emigrating to California, found our culture's custom more than a little abrasive. On a visit back home, a relative introduced him to a product that has been manufactured in Argentina for the past 20 years, an easy-to-install plumbing fixture that turns any standard toilet bowl into a bidet. Rebagliati had a revelation.

"This is the answer to your problem," he tells me in his living room, proudly holding the device, called the Bidematic, up for display. Rebagliati has become its sole U.S. importer, hoping to mainstream use of the product via his one-man company, Quest. Tall, gangly, with gray-tinted red hair, Rebagliati began appearing at local trade shows last December with a banner proclaiming the device to be "the solution to your problems."

"I didn't know I had a problem," more than one person commented snidely. Others skittered away from the Bidematic as if it were a chrome spider waiting to spring out of the bowl. "Come closer," he'd tell them with his lilting accent. "It's not going to hurt you." He realized he had a hard sell on his hands when even his progressive friends shied away from the bidet. So far, he's only sold about 60 of them.

"It's a paradox," Rebagliati explains. "Here, there are so many gadgets, you can get a gadget for anything you can think of ... yet the bidet is still something of a hurdle."

It was a hurdle I felt compelled to leap. With little urging, Rebagliati loaned me a demo model, a cold-water unit that retails for $129 (a hot-and-cold-water model retails for $147). Unlike the stand-alone bidet most people are familiar with, the Bidematic is easily installed on your existing toilet, saving space and actually making the whole operation more efficient, since you don't have to get off one commode to squat and clean yourself over another.

The Bidematic is a simple enough device, comprised of a control valve and a hinged wand that swings out to the center of the toilet bowl for use and folds neatly back under the rim out of sight afterward. It attaches to the bowl using one of the seat-cover bolts; a braided stainless-steel line attaches to the toilet's water-supply valve. After installing the demo, I opened the unit's control valve, and a small fountain of water bubbled straight up out of six tiny nozzles in the wand's tip. I eagerly anticipated the next morning's constitutional.

The time came, and after doing my business, I swung the wand out to the center of the bowl and slowly cracked open the Bidematic's supply valve. I heard the water bubbling up out of the wand, then felt a gentle, cooling spray. I opened the valve further, and the spray intensified into a firm, pulsing jet. If my anus could sigh, it would have. I became an instant convert.

In the month that has passed since then, my appreciation for the bidet has only grown. Like most people who take the plunge, I've found that cold water is plenty warm enough for the task and even pleasing to a certain degree. I keep a towel handy for drying off afterward. Because I am so much cleaner, I feel better about myself; there's a new jaunt to my step.

Wiping is so ingrained in our culture (not to mention our rear ends) that I still sometimes catch myself unconsciously reaching for the roll, like Rush Limbaugh reaching for the Oxycontin. Another aspect of bidet use points more directly to a possible cause of its lack of widespread acceptance in the United States. Because you don't throw wads of paper into the bowl, you can actually see your own stool.

It startled me the first couple of times, until I realized it has always been down there, hidden beneath a curtain of toilet paper. That's where we'd like to keep it: hidden. As UC-Santa Barbara anthropology professor Francesca Bray notes: "In American culture, excreta must be completely disassociated from the individual generating them. They should be invisible, unscented, and above all anonymous."

In her study American Modern: The Foundation of Western Civilization, (viewable online at www.anth.ucsb.edu/ faculty/bray/toilet/index.html), Bray explores a variety of cultural attitudes toward what might be the most taken-for-granted technological development of the industrial age: the porcelain toilet and the vast system of hidden, underground sewers that support its use. She acknowledges our technological contributions to the field but still finds us wanting.

"[A]re Americans the world's cleanest people? They scent their toilet paper and decorate it with flowers, but unlike the Japanese, they are not 'a people who like to wash their bottoms,' and neither the French bidet nor the Japanese Toto toilet finds many customers in the United States. We think taking cleanliness so far is dirty."

Bray, reached by telephone in Santa Barbara, said that assessment is continually verified by "the horrified, shocked reactions of students" every time she presents American Modern in class. Why is that we don't like talking about our own shit?

"It's just such a delicate question to ask," she chuckles.

There's surprisingly little hard data available on the subject of our ablutions. A survey by online retailer Toilet Paper World at www.toiletpaperworld.com finds that the average person uses 57 sheets of toilet paper per day. A smaller informal study revealed that only 60 percent of the respondents look at the paper after wiping. How do the 40 percent who don't look know that they're clean? They don't, and apparently it doesn't bother them.

"We don't want to know where our shit goes," says Larry Robinson, a Sebastopol City Council member and practicing psychoanalyst. "Every organism's waste is another organism's food, but there's some notion that we as human beings are above the cycle of life and death. We don't want to know what comes out the other end."

A scholar of European history, Robinson traces our break with nature back to the plagues of the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution that followed. By the 19th century, our modern system of enclosed, underground sewers was in place, just in time for Scott Paper's introduction of the first toilet-paper roll in 1890. Since then, there's been no looking back. Our break, Robinson postulates, has metastasized into an abject terror of sexuality and defecation.

"Our ethos of conquest and environ-mental destruction has distracted us from nature and our own bodies," he says.

The widespread use of bidets might just help us mend this break with nature, at least according to some distributors of the device. In another one of the many paradoxes swirling around the issue of our own bowel movements, the United States manufactures most of the world's bidets, yet personal use here remains sporadic. According to American bidet distributor Magic John, "If every household in the U.S. replaced just one roll of 500-sheet virgin-fiber bathroom tissue with 100 percent recycled ones or our bidet, we could save 297,000 trees, 1.2 million cubic feet of landfill space, equal to 1,400 full garbage trucks, and 122 million gallons of water, a year's supply for 3,500 families of four."

The water savings cited would come from the manufacturing side of the toilet-paper equation--it takes an enormous amount of water and energy to transform wood into paper. Jorge Rebagliati is convinced that there would also be significant savings of water on our end locally if we all started using bidets. While
I have been unable to find a study that compares the two hygienic methods, Susan Keach, an environmental compliance inspector for the Sonoma County Water Agency, thinks the idea has merit.

"It couldn't hurt to keep the paper out of the water," she says. Keach became fascinated with human-waste disposal after viewing raw sewage effluent through an electron microscope while a student at UC Davis. As if paraphrasing Robinson, she relates a detailed explanation about how the appetite of microbes for human waste has been harnessed by technology down at the local sewage plant. After they do the dirty work, digesting toxic sewage sludge and excreting a less toxic bio-solid, the microbes are wiped out with chlorine in typical human fashion. The little buggers literally eat shit and die, spending the entirety of their minute lives in a murky stew of feces, dissolved toilet paper, chicken blood, tampons, dental floss, condoms, and anything else that gets flushed down the drain.

Even though toilet paper is designed to completely dissolve in water, the chemicals in it, including carcinogenic dioxins, still become part of the waste stream. Having less paper would make it simpler to reclaim so-called gray water, but Keach doesn't expect people to rush out and buy bidets anytime soon.

"As long as people flush the toilet and it doesn't come back up, things are pretty good for most people," she says. As a culture, we don't want to know anything more than that. She has a friend who can't even say the word "poop," and instead refers to going number two as "the other." It's that old, dark fear of what lies beneath. We wash the darkness out to sea, regardless of how much water it takes. "People just think we'll make more," Keach says.

The Personal Rinse

Perhaps the most favorable evidence supporting the widespread use of bidets comes from the health field, but once again objective medical data available to the general public is about as thin as the tissue most of us wipe our butts with. We're left with plausible-sounding claims such as those made by the manufacturer of the Biffy Personal Rinse, a bidet that's similar to the device being marketed by Rebagliati: "The Biffy Personal Rinse was developed by physicians and nurses for your personal health. Rubbing with paper is not only unclean and archaic, it is very irritating to delicate tissues and spreads bacteria around the rectal and vaginal areas.

"The resulting contamination can feel uncomfortable and lead to vaginal colonization. The problem is more than one of aesthetics and discomfort. Using toilet paper is a major cause of bladder and urinary tract infections. The Biffy is effective at reducing or eliminating urinary tract infections."

Doctors recommend the bidet as a primary treatment for hemorrhoids, rashes, anal fissures and anorectal itching. Some physicians advise their female patients to wash their genitals with a bidet every time they change a feminine pad to maintain ideal cleanliness. It's also suggested for women recovering from childbirth, patients recovering from colon-rectal surgery and the disabled who, for whatever reason, can no longer wipe. In more than a few ads for bidets, doctors claim the device may even prevent colon cancer, but I've found no study so far that substantiates that.

Despite the lack of hard data, it seems reasonable that just the thought of a device that might prevent surgeons from one day removing a substantial portion of your rectum would create a frenzied run on bidets. We're tremendously concerned about what we put into our bodies, as countless fad diets demonstrate. But the same has so far not held true for what comes out of our bodies, at least in this country. Our fear of shit trumps even our fear of death.

The writers at the irreverent website Poop Report (www.poopreport.com) aren't afraid to look at their own shit--or anybody else's, come to think of it. They're on a mission to wipe out poop's terrifying aura, and part of that mission includes the promotion of bidet use. A writer who goes by the name Colon Bowell describes his first experience with the bidet. "I've felt the winds of change blow through my bathroom," he writes. "For once, this wind was not flatulence. Instead, it came in the form of a cool, comforting geyser of water, hosing down my overused undercarriage."

Bowell thinks that the lack of acceptance for bidets in the United States stems mostly from men, who view them either with a sort of homophobic disgust or as products for the affluent, women and the infirm. The website recently held a contest to rename the bidet to make it more marketable to red-blooded he-men. "Buttsink" was the top vote getter, followed by the "rear admiral" and the "gravy drain."

"Bidet manufacturers of the world, take note," the Poop Report reports. "Your product has a new name and a new target market. You can't sell a man a bidet, but you can sell a man a buttsink. And men of the world, take note. You can have a pain-free ass-cleaning experience without feeling like a sissy. You don't have to feel intimidated or threatened--it's not a bidet, it's a buttsink."

Heath Doolin, a sales manager for Magic John, which markets more than a dozen different Japanese-manufactured bidets in the United States, thinks it's going to take more than a name change for bidets to become the next big thing.

"Generally, when it comes to private areas like that, people will stick to the tried and true--what they grew up with," he says. "Once people try it, they find it really works. Before I first started, I thought it was weird. I didn't want water shooting all over."

Phone calls to several plumbing supply stores confirmed that the primary market for the device remains a few affluent home owners who want the latest gadget, customers from cultures where bidets are more accepted and patients seeking treatment for medical conditions--the same customers Doolin deals with on a daily basis.

"It's still in its infancy, but we're getting more and more calls every day," he says. He thinks it's going to take some sort of widespread recognition, such as a national hotel chain adopting the bidet, before it really takes off.

"It's going to take a revolution," says Jorge Rebagliati. It's a battle he doesn't mind leading. "I have a natural instinct to break taboos."

He's approached two Bay Area water agencies about using the Bidematic as a water-conservation device. They've yet to get back to him. He's traveled to Las Vegas, where one major hotel expressed interest in the device before turning him down. An ad in the San Francisco Chronicle produced a few sales, and he's planning to put up a website soon. And there's always the construction trade shows.

He's the Che Guevara of the derriere, this lanky redhead tilting his chrome-plated brass wand at the windmills of our ignorance, at our unspeakable problem. In me, he has already found a convert. Whether he will succeed in his mission, I do not know. However, I do know that if it comes, the revolution will be sanitized.


Bidet-curious? The Bidematic can be purchased locally from Jorge Rebagliati Quest, 707.578.6049. Check out the Biffy Personal Rinse at www.biffy.com. A variety of different bidets can be viewed at www.magicjohn.com.


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From the December 11-17, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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