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Wednesday, November 4, 1998 Published at 08:20 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Getting to the bottom of the paperless loo

The Toto Washlet revolutionises going to the toilet as we know it

That great domestic nightmare - running out of toilet paper at an inconvenient moment - could be a thing of the past - thanks to the latest Japanese contribution to modern living.

The Toto Washlet is the toilet that does away with loo paper, substituting it with a range of automated functions that turn this simple act of nature into a technological experience.

This state-of-the-art lavatory looks and, to all extents and purposes, works like a normal toilet - until the very end.

When it comes to reaching for the loo paper, the user is instead confronted with a panel of controls not unlike something out of the Starship Enterprise.

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By pressing one of the buttons and turning one of the knobs, the Washlet emits a powerful jet of water, which cleans in the place where one would normally apply paper.

The spray begins at low pressure and increases in intensity for maximum effect. The more advanced designs also offer a pulsating massage spray.

A unique experience

However, there is more to the Washlet than meets the eye. Richard Lloyd-Parry who writes for the British newspaper, The Independent, in Tokyo, says there are certain hazards of which the newcomer needs to be aware.

"There is room for all kinds of misunderstandings with people who haven't used one. It's a great joke for foreigners who've recently arrived in Japan to be introduced to the Washlet by their hostess or whoever.

"Unless they know what they're doing, they get this jet of water in their face because they try and work the controls when they're standing up," Mr Lloyd-Parry says.

And the Washlet is also a step up from your everyday bidet. After your bottom has been cleaned, you remain sitting where you are, press another button and a type of hair-dryer, built under the rim of the toilet, blows hot air to dry you off.

This is where trouble may arise, should there be a queue for the loo you are using. The manufacturer has already had complaints that this stage takes far too long.

A matter of taste

Despite being around for the last 18 years, the Washlet has only recently caught on as a part of everyday life in Japan, and most affluent homes in Tokyo have one.

Obviously consumers are not being put off by the marketing slogan used to sell it - "Your bottom will like it after three tries, don't let people say behind your back that you have a dirty bottom".

Ten million have sold since 1980 and they are now selling at 2.2m a year. Prices range from around $600 to $3,800, depending on the model.

Yet the Washlet's main market is currently only a local one. Despite concerted efforts, it has so far failed to catch on in Europe and America.

But just as the age of the paperless office looms, it could just be a matter of time before this applies to the lavatory.

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