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The rise of American bidets — 100 years in the making

When toilet paper became scarce, Americans searched the globe for better toilet technologies

SHARE The rise of American bidets — 100 years in the making

Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

There’s a hidden history woven through time and civilization, a shadow that traces the motion of progress: the story of humans wrestling with their own filth.

I couldn’t help but ponder that history as I walked into the bathroom of a truck stop in rural Japan, and encountered a perplexing device designed to power-wash one’s unmentionables at the press of a button.

Like many insufferable travelers, I came back from Japan and made snide comments about the quality of our noodles, and our embarrassing lack of bullet trains, but I also harbored a more earnest question: Why are bidets so uncommon in the U.S? 

It could be that Americans are just not exposed to the technology, or that we are uncomfortable talking about it as a society. Maybe the price is prohibitive, or there are long-held taboos about the fixtures. Maybe those Charmin™ bears have us hypnotized.

But what is learned cannot be unlearned, and in becoming aware of bidets, I could not ignore the reality that my native land wallows in a dry-wipe culture.

Things, however, may now be changing.

A society that is increasingly aware of international cultures and the lingering impacts of the pandemic are prompting Americans to re-evaluate their hygiene regimen. I spoke with leading scholars, journalists, executives and any plumber that would answer my call in order to shed light on the question: “Is the time of the bidet upon us?”

“The lingering impacts of the pandemic are causing many Americans to re-evaluate their hygiene regimen.”

During the pandemic, as toilet paper disappeared from the shelves, consumers began looking for alternatives to the two-ply lifestyle. Flushable wipes became equally scarce and created horrific sewer problems. Some Americans began experimenting with a product they had been avoiding for 100 years.

I had a virtual conversation with Toto USA president Bill Strang as he reclined on a park bench in Boston.

We talked about consumer trends over the past few years, and he was quick to point out that the word “bidet” was the 20th most-searched term during the toilet paper shortage. He painted a picture of a glorious, bidet-filled future. “The millennial generation is the most culturally sensitive, and most open to adopting new trends,” he said. 

But there are also barriers to overcome. Not only can cost be prohibitive, but Americans are also “hesitant to have this bathroom rinsing experience.” But Strang is sure that the user will “understand the value proposition” of his product, even those that are priced in the thousands.

The bidet is a French invention, as the name might imply. But, the English-speaking world rejected the bidet, even after exposure to the device abroad at the turn of the 20th century. It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction, but one popular story holds that American soldiers were exposed to bidets in the brothels of Europe during the World Wars, and thus associated them with debauchery.

This lewd association supposedly prevented the adoption of the fixture in the post-war U.S.

In 1966, Alexander Kira wrote the proverbial textbook on the bathroom, aptly named “The Bathroom.” He claims tenants moving into one of New York City’s “most luxurious and expensive” apartments “equipped with bidets by the forward-thinking builder” had the fixtures torn out at their own expense because of cultural attitudes.

“Using a bidet may have been considered redundant and space-consuming.”

I spoke with Richard Longstreth, professor of American studies at George Washington University on the subject. He believes practical considerations played a large role in the rejection of the French fixture. 

“There was a quantum leap at the turn of the century, where there’s a great deal of interest in efficiency,” he said. “Using a bidet may have been considered redundant and space-consuming.” The U.S. underwent many significant changes in the early and mid-19th century, which Longstreth called the “key period” of adoption. 

After World War II, many lived in prefabricated housing designed by real-estate developers like William Levitt, to meet minimum housing standards. “Levitt would have thought about (the bidet) in the same way he would think about having a parlor. It was never a significant part of American culture,” Longstreth said. Utility and cost had as much to do with the omission on the part of the builders as stigma did. 

So why did I encounter a toilet/bidet combo in Japan, seemingly so pervasive it had made its way to truck stop bathrooms?

At the beginning of the 19th century, Japan had been using squat toilets dug into the ground, as is typical in many regions. Human waste had a name reminiscent of a Marvel™ character: “night soil.” It was carted out of cities and sold to farmers as fertilizer. Plumbing was not a pressing concern.

Long before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where organizers set the highest standards in sanitation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was the 1962 Olympics. Conditions in the city were inadequate, with sewage flowing into rivers, contaminated drinking water and poor air quality. The pressure of hosting this international event triggered a significant sanitary infrastructure reform. 

The nation committed to upgrading a city that desperately needed attention. Japan was in the global spotlight for the first time since World War II. Western toilets were encouraged by designers to showcase a modern metropolis. The event elevated global perceptions of Japan as a place for innovation. 

Soon after, in 1964, the Japanese trading company, Nichimen Jitsugyo, took notice of a struggling businessman in Brooklyn, selling a product he called the American Sitzbath. The man was Arnold “Mr. Bidet” Cohen, who developed and patented a bidet similar to those in Europe but found marketing difficult. He reportedly said, “advertising was a next-to-impossible challenge. Nobody wants to hear about Tushy Washing 101.” 

Nichimen Jitsugyo imported and redesigned Cohen’s product (with his blessing), introducing it to a brand new Japanese market open to hygiene innovation. In the 80s, one of the nation’s largest toilet manufacturers, Toto, integrated the bidet washing features into a “washlet” — a toilet seat with an angled spray attachment.

The popularity of this product soared.

To understand whether the U.S. is ready for bidets, it’s important to understand why Japan was receptive to the technology after its introduction in the 60s. I turned to smart people who study these things to get their thoughts.

Dr. Linda Galvane has two doctorates, one from Stanford and one from Osaka University in Japan, where she lived for 8 years. Her research focuses on representations of excrement in Japanese literature. 

“We have this tendency to make moral statements,” she says, “but technology and money considerations drive more action.” Two things she can point to that have aided in Japan’s adoption are early education and a focus on the consumer. In the 80s, ads were played often to educate the public on the new washlet technology.

Nate Berg, a freelance journalist, traveled to Japan to understand why Japan knocks down its houses after 30 years, a completely different real-estate model from the U.S. where we continually renovate older structures, especially in high-density urban areas. He told me that housing loses value over time, so a family does not have the incentives to renovate when moving in, often electing to build new. “This creates the conditions where consumers will test out new technology, more frequently,” he said. “There’s going to be newer stuff on the shelf,” and plumbing fixtures are no exception.

These economic factors melded with Japanese culture ready to receive the technology. “Most of the Japanese 80s generation was really proud of innovative electronic products like the Sony Walkman, digital cameras, and the electronic bidet,” according to Akbar Adhiutama, who received his doctorate in management of technology in Japan and has studied architecture, electrical engineering and business.

He also points out that “the infrastructure in Japan — the water, sanitary system, and electrical system — supports the product.” Since the toilet is in a separate area from the shower, the combination of water and electricity was not as big of an issue.

When comparing product offerings in a less-than-crowded domestic market, it’s difficult to know what to expect. Two companies that best illustrate the range of product offerings in the U.S. are TUSHY and Toto. The price difference between their entry-level toilet seat attachment is a cool $600, and while they perform similar functions, their approach couldn’t be more different.

Strang says, “the vertical integration of the (Toto) manufacturing process is something that no U.S. or Chinese competitor can claim.” He’s not wrong, as Toto makes the equipment required to manufacture their highly controlled products; everything is in-house. 

TUSHY on the other hand is an American startup run by the controversial Miki Agrawal, whose success can be partially attributed to the company’s highly popular “poop-centric social content”. It offers the bare minimum — a cold water spray that’s pressure adjustable. The plastic mount can be easily installed between your toilet seat and bowl.

It does the job, but little more. 

“Nobody wants to hear about Tushy Washing 101.”

The Toto is a product that offers an experience more familiar in Japan—heated seat, oscillating warm-water jets, drying fan, bowl pre-mist and programmable user features. It’s hard to justify the purchase for the difference in price point, however, with the only really valuable addition being higher quality materials and the heated features. The installation is relatively simple but requires a water-safe GFCI outlet within feet of the toilet.

There may be a societal shift underway, with more Americans exposed to different ways of living through the internet, travel and more diverse media offerings. As we have seen with Japan in the 80s, a people must be culturally primed to adopt new technology, and the infrastructure must exist to support it. Modular toilet seat designs now work with most fixtures, and the technology has not stopped evolving. The pandemic may have been the cultural tipping point for adoption.

More of us, trapped inside, learned how to renovate our living quarters. We learned how mobs can take away our toilet paper in the blink of an eye, and the importance of apocalypse prepping. What’s to stop our elasticity from extending to the bathroom?

The country is 40 years behind schedule, however, and companies like Toto, Mylan and Kohler are pushing forward to the next big bathroom revolution.

Strang spoke with glee of new dystopian technology that will track the health of consumers’ waste products (first prophesied by Adult Swim). Like a FitBit™ and a bedpan had a baby, these new toilets could analyze and store data on your stool samples. Call me old-fashioned, but if that’s the future, I’d rather deposit my night soil in a snake hole, thanks very much.

But, maybe America is ready to take the plunge. Simon Partner, a professor of Japanese history at Duke University, agrees. “One thing I am reasonably sure of,” he said, “the bidet’s time is coming in America, and soon.”