back to the Black Table
               
  JAPAN: HOME OF HIGH-TECH DEPOSITS AND HARD-TO-FIND WITHDRAWALS.  
   
   
 

In 2002 NHK, the Japanese state supported television network, featured on one of its more popular programs, "Project X," the history of a Japanese original -- the high tech toilet.

The show, with the loosely translated tagline "Those who meet the challenge," highlights the feats of a small number of admirable

 
 

Japanese at a time when the country is mired in the worst economic slump since World War II. "Project X" encourages ordinary Japanese to vicariously relive the past glories of a few. Past profiled engineering marvels include the world's longest suspension bridge, the Akashi Strait Bridge, and the Shinkansen, Japan's famous high-speed train. Men and women (usually the "dutiful wife") recall their roles in these projects emotionally, often with tears welling up in their eyes. They believe they made Japan, and sometimes the world, a better place to live.

While a toilet can hardly be compared to the design and engineering of a suspension bridge that stretches almost 2.5 miles, perhaps the homage the show

     
 

paid to the toilet does, to a certain degree, reveal what is important to many Japanese: a clean butt as a reflection of the country's rise from the ashes of the war to join the industrialized nations of the world, whose citizens, presumably, also enjoy the fresh feeling of a clean butt.

The Japanese techno toilet, however, did not begin in Japan. As with other Japanese products, it began as an export to the U.S. and Europe in the early 1960s, when Toto, the world's largest producer of toilets, developed one for use in hospitals there. In 1964, a watershed year for Japan because the summer Olympics were held in Tokyo (the Shinkansen began operations the same year), the toilet was marketed domestically but failed to find a market. The Japanese, perhaps a bit confused by Western ways, were still used to their traditional squat-over-the-trough design.

It wasn't until 1982, at the beginning of Japan's economic boom, that the techno toilet caught on with the public. Thank a catchy ad campaign: an attractive young modern woman who says, "Well, my butt, I wanted it washed." The techno toilet is present in virtually every hotel, (if not in each room, at least in the high-traffic areas), department stores, and affluent homes. One with all the features --

 
     

bidet, air dry, adjustable water pressure -- can set an anal retentive back almost $3,000. In recent years, the control panel (digital, natch) has migrated from a truncated armrest similar in size to something found in a sports car, to a wall mounted remote control unit that allows the user to view the icons at eye level.

A few Westerners are so enamored by the techno toilet that share their experiences on various blogs, sometimes including photos and instructions to prevent fellow

 
 

tourists from making the same mistakes they did. (You will need to know the kanji character for stop, by the way, to turn the jet spray of water off.)

The Japanese government, apparently unaware of Westerners' toilet confusion, has no information on its tourist website, part of an extensive ad campaign to lure tourists, giving the country a needed economic boost. The site takes pains to allay tourists' fears, assuring them that not everyone experiences alienation a la Bill Murray's character in "Lost in Translation."

Machines Dispense Stickers, But Not Money.

A person planning to spend some time in Japan will learn the usual things -- where to stay, what to do, how to order, how to get around, and where to get cash. And that is where Japan's high tech reputation takes a nosedive. A country that puts so much effort into its toilets has done little to make it easy for foreign tourist to spend money.

Tokyo is a city of 8 million with 100 24-hour ATMs that accept foreign bank cards. Bangkok, a city of about the same size, has several thousand. Where I live, Sendai, a city of 1 million in northern Japan, there is not one 24-hour ATM that takes foreign bank cards. The government, to its credit, has overhauled the ATMs at post offices. Though there is always one nearby, none are open for 24 hours. On weekdays they close at 6 p.m., on Saturdays at 2 p.m., and all day Sunday.

To those who think of Japan as the world's showcase of high-tech doodads, this enigma of amazing gadgetry -- such as toilets -- alongside inconvenient, throwback ATMs, will undoubtedly confound them. The confusion will set in after leaving their hotel room with an ass cleaned by technology, a smile on their face, and an ATM card in their pocket. By the time they get to an ATM, it will be closed. Grocery stores have no ATMs, and most only take cash.

Japanese banks, reeling under the weight of non-performing loans, are notoriously hidebound and less concerned with consumer banking than their corporate clients, among them Sony, Fujitsu, Toshiba, Panasonic, NEC, and Sharp. These giants of the high tech industry have engineers who occasionally appeared on "Project X." But bank executives, who so happily manage the finances of tech companies, have ignored the importance of product development in the high tech industry. Competition in high tech is fierce -- what is hot today will likely be tossed on the trash heap of obsolescence tomorrow.

Japanese tourists traveling in foreign lands marvel at accessible, 24-hour ATMs and complain about filthy, antiquated toilets. If Japan wants to boost its tourism industry, perhaps a reevaluation of priorities is in order.