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Historic shrines and palaces are an essential part of any trip to Japan, but what really fascinates visitors is the Washlet. A staple of Japanese daily life, the Washlet is the world’s most intelligent toilet. Comfortably warmed, it senses your approach and raises its lid, plays gushing water sounds to spare embarrassment, gives the bottom a quick wash and blow dry and flushes automatically on departure. It’s simple, yet brilliantly effective and guaranteed to astound first-timers.

TOTO, the company which launched the Washlet in 1980 – and has since sold over 20 million of them – celebrates its 90th birthday in May. Led by Teruo Kise, who has been a TOTO employee since 1970 and president since 2003, the company is marking its anniversary with characteristic vim: a new name and a strategy for global dominance, including a concerted effort to crack Europe, the last bastion of Washlet resistance.

“We reckon the generation span of a company is 30 years, so we’re now entering the fourth generation,” says Hiromichi Tabata, in charge of toto’s international business. “It’s time to evolve.”

It was TOTO’s founder, the doughty Kazuchika Okura, who toured Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, fell in love with the plumbing and decided to take the idea back to Japan. Okura’s original company was known as Toyo Toki or Eastern Ceramics; in 1970 the name was changed to toto kiki, when the company expanded its activities to household equipment; as of May this year, the company will be known in Japanese, as it already is in English, simply as TOTO.

“Wanting to improve people’s lifestyle was the motivating force for starting the company when Japan didn’t even have sewage systems,” explains Teruo Kise. “We manufactured the first toilets in Japan, went into mass production and developed original products such as the Washlet and Shampoo Dresser [an extra-wide sink]. By changing our name we’re trying to evolve, providing customers not only with our products but also with a ‘softer’ side – high-quality presentation, installation and service.”

Today TOTO has 60 per cent of the Japanese restroom market. Of the 8.5 million toilets, tanks and sinks sold in Japan last year, 5.6 million were made by toto. Of these, 3.9 million came from TOTO’s Japanese factories and the remaining 1.7 million of them came from its factories overseas. TOTO has plants across Asia in China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. There’s a US factory that serves the American market and another in Mexico, currently under construction and due for completion in 2008. As of the end of March 2006, TOTO’s annual net sales had risen 2.2 per cent on the previous year to a record ¥494.8bn (€3.2bn).

Restroom products – ie toilets, washlets and sinks – made up 41 per cent of TOTO’s over the year financial year 2005/6. The firm also makes kitchens, showers, bath tubs, bath units, tiles, heaters, hand dryers and even fine ceramics for semi conductors. Toilets, though, like the Neorest – the world’s first rimless bowl – remain the signature product.

TOTO’s HQ is in Kokura, an industrial port on the northern edge of Kyushu. This is the home of the mother factory and technology centre. Overseas production is controlled from Kokura and new products are developed here.

There’s a pleasantly old-fashioned air to the factory, from the clipped hedges to the mint and pink nylon jackets worn by staff. The products might be hi-tech but the factory is remarkably homely. The reception desk at this multi-billion-euro company is low-key with some flowers and a couple of miniature ceramic toilets.

With 60 per cent of Japanese homes already kitted out with a Washlet, TOTO has turned its attention to the export market. Only 10 per cent of sales last year came from overseas and Kise’s plan is to increase that to 20 per cent in the next 10 years. TOTO expects production to rise from 10.4 million (in 2006) to 12 million in 2010. The US is its number one foreign market, followed by China, Southeast Asia and India, the Middle East and finally Europe. China – which seems to have caught onto Washlet culture in no time – is a big growth market.

“The key factor is the experience,” says Hiroshi Tanie. “We say that once you use the Washlet three times, you’ll never go back.” Tanie is moving to Germany next year to head up toto’s new European centre, part of its bid to make inroads into the European market.

Although the Europeans are standardising their regulations and TOTO is already selling Washlets in a number of countries, including France and Italy, it is still having to adjust models to adapt to the two countries with the most complicated regulations: the UK and Germany.

Washlets should go on sale there next year. “We believe the benefit of the Washlet is universal, not just Japanese; it’s easy to use, easy to clean,” says Tabata. “We just have to try hard to persuade people.”

Styrofoam versions of new products are piled up in TOTO’s design workshop. “Sometimes we’re just making minor adjustments to existing products, other times it’s a completely new design,” says Yasushi Takahashi. He’s part of TOTO’s design team and was responsible for the look of the latest Neorest.

“The idea was to make it look as simple as possible,” he explains. “almost like a piece of furniture.” With each re-design the toilet is being pared down to a smoother, easier-to-clean shape. “Ideally I’d like to create something that would be appreciated by housewives and design professionals alike. We know our customers are already satisfied with the way the product works. Now they’re thinking more in terms of lifestyle.”

Shoichiro Morita is one of a team of engineers who turn the designers’ ideas into real products. “We try to change their designs as little as possible,” he says. “Of course, there are some things we can’t do technically. Designers want sharp lines, but if they’re too sharp the product is fragile and it’s difficult to glaze.”

When a new factory opens abroad, Japanese employees are sent to ensure TOTO standards are upheld. “We use exactly the same system and quality in every factory,” says Morita. Like many employees at Kokura, he was born in the area. toto is a big local employer along with Nippon Steel and Yaskawa Denki, which make the robots that glaze TOTO’s toilets to perfection.

The factory is brightly lit and spotless. “It’s not just for cleanliness,” says Morita. “If any metallic powder gets in, it could change the colour of the products.” TOTO prides itself on the consistency of its products. “Once something is glazed you can’t change it. At TOTO we can stabilise the process and the materials and can really make each product the same.”

TOTO toilets have two killer assets: the Tornado flush and the stain-resistant Cefiontect glaze. Morita runs through a terrifying array of slides showing the deterioration in the glaze, the inadequacy of the flush and accumulated bacteria in a regular toilet. The Neorest – the Rolls-Royce of toilets – has all TOTO’s latest technology rolled into one: the rimless basin, the powerful jet-stream flush, the self-cleaning nozzle that pops out to wash and massage, and it uses less water and less energy than previous models.

The dedicated Washlet HQ is a few kilometres away on a wooded hill. Here technical boffins think of ways to improve TOTO’s biggest product. Engineers sit with their heads in toilets testing the functions repeatedly, examining sprays and measuring water pressure; Washlets are put through their paces in temperatures of extreme cold and heat.

Minoru Matsui, who runs the Washlet development team, thinks function should come before frippery. “Other companies focus on adding functions but I think we should focus on making the basics even better,” he says. Having said that, a trip to the Ladies’ is fascinating: each cubicle has a different Washlet. There’s a Neorest in one and a new Apricot in another, complete with aromatherapy deodoriser and a selection of music from Ave Maria to Air On a G String.

With Washlet controls starting to look baffling, TOTO has come up with a new, streamlined control which hides all the functions behind a panel, exposing only four buttons; they’ve designed another one with bigger buttons for the elderly.

TOTO’s only serious rival in the Washlet business is the Japanese company INAX and future plans are closely guarded secrets. Matsui does say that he and his team are dreaming up a Washlet that might be able to analyse urine and calculate body fat and another one that will remove the chlorine and spray bottoms with only the purest of water.

The TOTO team

They are dedicated to the cause of making the world’s best washrooms and bathrooms. They have seen the future and it has a warm loo seat. Meet some of TOTO’s top players.

01 - Ryosuke ‘Rick’ Hayashi

Chief senior engineer manager
Has been working for TOTO for 20 years, including a stint in the US. “The potential for TOTO is enormous. It’s already a multi-billion- dollar company and we have 2,000 college graduates with engineering backgrounds at the forefront of the industry.”

02 - Teruo Kise

President (since 2003)
Kise has been working at TOTO since graduating from Kyoto University in 1970. Years of experience with sales and marketing have taught him the importance of listening to the customer. “The desire to live a clean and comfortable life is not unique to the Japanese, it is common among people in all countries.

03 - Hiroshi Tanie

General manager, international business
Tanie will be moving to Europe to run TOTO’s new centre in Germany. In 2009 TOTO will make its debut appearance at ISH, the world’s biggest bathroom fair, held biennially in Frankfurt.

04 - Yasushi Takahashi

Design division
Takahashi has been working for TOTO for 12 years. Takahashi designed the new version of the Neorest. “Toto products already function well. Now we’re thinking of words like ‘relaxation’ and ‘healing’.”

05 - Minoru Matsui

Manager, Washlet development
An electronics engineering graduate, Matsui leads the Washlet development team. He never goes abroad without his battery-operated Travel Washlet.

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