You think you are clean. You shower, you deodorize, you are scrupulous. But half the world still thinks you are filthy. Why? Because, if you use toilet paper to clean down there, you are. In anal-cleansing matters, the world divides into wipers and washers. Half the planet uses paper or tissue to clean with; the other half uses water. For washers, cleansing an anus with tissue is as efficient as rubbing yourself with a towel and imagining it removes dirt. It means using water to clean every part of the body except the dirtiest. For wipers, meanwhile, toilet paper is a comfortingly hands-free method. These cultural differences are unlikely to change when the global toilet-tissue industry is worth US$15 billion a year. Anyway, the most hygienic option is a compromise. Wash (installing a shower attachment near the toilet provides a hands-free facility); dry with toilet paper; and always wash your hands (unlike 30 percent of men, even in plumbed countries).
How do you sell a toilet? With difficulty, except in Japan. Only there are toilets considered desirable. Only there are they improved, updated, revolutionized. In Japan, even basic toilets can perform some of the following functions: wash and dry your anus by means of an in-built nozzle and blow-dryer; suck smelly ions from the air; switch on a light for you; and put the lid down for you (a function known as the "marriage saver"). Some can even check blood pressure; plenty play music; heated seats are standard.
Known as Washlet-style toilets (after a brand name), they are now used in 72 percent of Japanese homes. Yet 70 years ago, the Japanese used pit latrines. They wiped, not washed. In less than a century, Japan has had a toilet revolution. All because of an actress, a gorilla and piece of wire.
In 1980, Japanese plumbing firm TOTO decided to launch a new product. The Washlet was based on an American medical toilet that incorporated a bidet nozzle in the toilet bowl, handy for people who couldn’t reach to wipe. But TOTO wanted to improve it. It wanted a more precise nozzle, and for that it needed some market research. As a comic-strip history of the company discloses, it persuaded some of its 20,000 employees to sit on a toilet, then mark their anus position on a wire strung across the seat. Not everyone complied. “Though we are colleagues,” one worker says politely, “I do not want you to know my anus position.” The precise measurements of the female anatomy – necessary for the bidet to wash front and back – were deducted from a visit to a strip club. The nozzle’s angle was set at 53 degrees, and TOTO waited for sales.
But the Washlet cost more than pit latrines or standard toilets. Even though it appealed to the Japanese love of bathing – offering fresh, hands-free → cleansing – people still didn’t buy it. It was expensive and weird. So TOTO turned to advertising.
Wash and dry your anus by means of an in-built nozzle and blow-dryer.
Selling toilet products has never been easy. It’s difficult to advertise your product when society doesn’t want you to say what the product is for. That explains all the pastels and puppies used by toilet-paper companies (toilet manufacturers generally don’t even bother). In 2002, when tissue-maker Velvet instead launched a campaign featuring bare bottoms and the slogan, “Love your bum,” it became the second most complained about advert on British television that year. The first featured a cockroach emerging from a baby’s mouth.
In Japan, TOTO recruited the popular actress Jun Togawa. She appeared on TV sets wearing doll-like clothes – for unexplained reasons – and a simple message. Smearing paint on her hand, she tried to wipe it with paper. “Paper won’t clean it,” she said. “It’s the same for your bottom.” In another ad, she read a letter from her bottom that said, “Even
bottoms have feelings.” Gadgetry, eccentricity and hands-free cleansing: it worked. TOTO has now sold at least 30 million Washlets, and has 60 percent of the toilet market, possibly because the advertising campaign launched by TOTO’s closest rival starred a man in a gorilla suit.
Cleaning properly is harder than you think. When researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine swabbed commuters in five UK cities in 2008, they found that nearly half of the men surveyed had fecal particles on their hands (compared to only 30 percent of women). Still, try your best with some of these options.
“Oh what a mistake we made about the little bathroom for the feet or whatnot,” said an American teacher visiting Paris in 1929. Originally viewed with suspicion, the use of the bidet – “the little horse,” as it is straddled – is rapidly disappearing in France, the nation that invented it.
Ancient Romans who could afford to use public latrines used a spongia, a sea-sponge dipped in water and attached to a stick. This technique is still useful for anyone who can’t reach behind to wipe, but vegetarians who avoid animal products are advised to find an alternative to a sponge: it looks like a plant, but is actually a multi-celled animal.
Doing nothing is a well-used option. In 1964, Dr. J.A. Cameron screened the underwear of 940 men of Oxfordshire, UK. He found fecal contamination in nearly all of them, ranging from “wasp-colored” stains to “frank massive feces.”
Invented in China, unused by three out of four people worldwide, toilet paper is beloved most of all by Americans. They each use 21,000 sheets a year, 98 percent made from trees from virgin forest. If every US household replaced just one roll of virgin-fiber tissue with the recycled kind, 423,900 trees would be saved.
Millions of southeast Asians clean with a lota, a cup that can be filled with water. Hold the cup with your right hand and pour; wash your backside with your left. For immigrants to paper cultures embarrassed to use a lota in public, fill an empty soda bottle, or keep a houseplant in the bathroom to justify having a watering can nearby.
Printed matter is a popular choice for anal cleansing. US publication the Old Farmer’s Almanac is still manufactured with a hole through it, so it can be hung from a nail. What happens to the used paper varies. In plenty of countries in Asia and south America, it is considered acceptable for soiled paper to be discarded in open trashcans, as it clogs narrow pipes.