|BIG IN JAPAN
Even as Japan discards its old
traditions, one custom hasn' died: bathroom etiquette.
Walk into the women's bathroom of practically any Tokyo department store or modern office
building and you'll find that the loo comes equipped with an "Otohime." Taken
from the name of a princess in a children's story, the Otohime, made by Toto Ltd,
reproduces the sound of a flushing toilet to help cover up those unpleasant restroom
Before the Otohime existed, some 90 percent of Japanese women admitted to flushing twice
when they used public toilets, according to a Toto survey. Nearly all of those who did
said they wanted to mask their own unflattering flatulence.
The product was first conceived 12 years ago by Suzue Endo, a Toto employee. She, too, was
a double-flusher. What bothered her was the enormous amount of water that was being
wasted. (On average, one flush of the toilet requires 13 liters of water.) She thought,
however, that if women had some kind of a noise maker, they might not flush and needlessly
waste water. That was the idea that she pitched to her bosses at Toto.
The next question was what sound effect to use. "They considered music, chirping
birds and a trickling stream," said Taiki Kiyosue, a Toto employee in the sales and
planning division. "But after conducting a survey of female employees, they finally
settled on a flushing toilet."
With that, the Otohime was born. But the concept itself is hundreds of years old. In fact,
Japanese aristocratic women may have used such noisemakers as early as the 15th century.
One artifact from that period is an ornate vase with a spigot that, when opened, splashes
water to drown out the urinary hiss.
By the 17th century Edo Period, upper-class women were opting for a more human touch.
History has it that the wife of Yoshinobu Tokugawa, last in a line of the ruling Tokugawa
shoguns, allegedly dragged an attendant into the lavatory with her. While the Tokugawa
princess peed, her attendant would swish water about in a bowl. Others had an attendant
repeatedly drop balls of dirt into a pot of water to disguise any disgusting sounds.
That custom perhaps explains why the Otohime has been such a hit here. Toto officials also
use it, however, to explain why the product's overseas debut is not in their near-term
plans. "There are the obvious cultural differences", Kiyosue said.
Not to mention the potential for confusion. One long-time employee of this magazine told
of how she once spent several confusing minutes in the loo searching for the flusher.
Eventually, she came upon the Otohime, only to find that while pressing the button brought
the predictable sound of rushing water, the contents of the bowl stayed put. Frustrated,
she left without flushing.
Kenji Hall and Chang-Ran Kim