Why America is losing the toilet race

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I just got back from my first trip to Japan, and I’m now in love with the country. The ramen, yakitori and sushi. The gorgeous volcanoes. The fascinating people and culture. But of all the things I fell in love with, there’s one that I can’t stop thinking about: the toilets.

Japanese toilets are marvels of technological innovation. They have integrated bidets, which squirt water to clean your private parts. They have dryers and heated seats. They use water efficiently, clean themselves and deodorize the air, so bathrooms actually smell good. They have white noise machines, so you can fill your stall with the sound of rain for relaxation and privacy. Some even have built-in night lights and music players. It’s all customizable and controlled by electronic buttons on a panel next to your seat.

In Japan, these high-tech toilets are everywhere: hotels, restaurants, bus stations, rest stops and around 80% of homes. It’s glorious. Then, I come back to the United States, and our toilets are stuck in the age of dirty coal mines and the horse and buggy. They basically have one feature: flush. No heated seats. No nice smells and sounds. No sanitizing blasts of liquid. It’s like cleaning your dishes without water. It’s gross. And it got me thinking: Why can’t we have high-tech toilets too?

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In a world of smart gadgets, why are toilets still so dumb?

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Your butt deserves better!

I spent the last three days talking to dozens of people about pooping.

The ease with which I can discuss the act of defecation is somewhat of a paradox — because I am exceedingly bathroom shy. Silent office restrooms with stall doors that end a foot and a half off the ground are my worst enemy, while the best workspace toilet experience I’ve ever had was, oddly, at a WeWork, where the barriers were floor to ceiling, there was always music playing, and each stall came equipped with its own bottle of air freshener spray.

Yet such restrooms are rare. In the United States, at least, we’re far more likely to encounter cramped, quiet bathrooms with terrible two-ply toilet paper and dribble on the seat. Even at home, where our bathrooms are typically more comfortable than what you’ll find at the mall or an office building, we’re limited to a basic setup: a plain porcelain bowl, with maybe two flush settings, beside a roll of whatever toilet paper you’re willing to invest in. God help you if you run out.

“Imagine a world where you only need to wipe once”

But it doesn’t have to be this way! All over the world, restrooms are blessed with more humane configurations. In some places, they come equipped with hoses so the user can more easily cleanse themselves after use. In others, such as France, bathrooms have bidets which perform the same function as the hose, only hands-free. And in some regions of Asia, most notably Japan, high-tech toilets with sound effects, heated seats, several bidet functions, and air dryers are as ubiquitous as automatic faucets, as Jane, a New York-based freelance calligrapher who lived in the Kagawa region of Japan for four years and requested that only her first name be used, told me.

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