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 reverberations.

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

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