“The Coolest Thing in Tokyo”: Japan’s Oldest Toilet Accessory
TOKYO – Japanese toilets are known abroad for their variety of functions, and one of them has recently gained special attention – a speaker that produces white noise to cover up any embarrassing rash.
The idea for the device actually has its roots in the country’s ancient âculture of shameâ.
During the Tokyo Olympics last summer, some visiting sports journalists reported devices installed inside toilets that broadcast recordings of babbling water.
One reporter praised the accessory, describing it as “the coolest thing in Tokyo” and saying she was “shocked” to hear the buzz. Another described her surprise upon hearing a device that played “birdsong”.
In 2013, a U.S. travel agency interviewed 200 foreign residents in Japan, asking them what surprised them most after arriving in the country. The largest number of respondents, 27%, cited singing toilets. The second largest group, accounting for 23%, responded “the wide variety of vending machines”, followed by 20.5% who said “the presence of a large number of convenience stores”. 17% replied that the toilet bidet function surprised them the most.
But when did the sound device debut? The first such product was released in 1979 by Orihara Manufacturing, a Tokyo-based manufacturer of toiletries. The world’s first device that electronically simulates the sound of flowing water and also serves as an air freshener was named Etiquette Tone by Company President Seiichi Orihara. As the name suggests, it was designed to muffle the potentially embarrassing sound of the final act of digestion.
In 1988, Toto followed suit by introducing Otohime, which later became an umbrella term for devices. In Japanese, oto means “his”, and him “Princess”, but when pronounced together the syllables form a namesake for the name of a princess from an underwater kingdom in a famous folk tale.
Before developing the product, an internal investigation allowed the company to understand that its employees were embarrassed not only by the lack of discretion of their bodies, but also by the other sounds they emit in a stall while undressing or using women’s health products.
âWe initially used a mechanical sound, but since 2011 we’ve been using a real recorded gurgling of a stream,â said product developer Tsukasa Matsuyama. The device can also superimpose birdsong.
Lixil, which launched its first version of the dulcet device in 1990, also uses a tap of running water. In 2018, she worked with Roland, an electronic instrument maker in the central Japanese city of Hamamatsu, to develop a special gurgling effect for a noise masking product called Sound Decorator.
âIt has a pleasing sound and enhances performance by drowning out the body sound,â said Lixil representative Shintaro Kawai.
But the culture of hiding indiscretions of the body dates back more than two centuries, to the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868).
An actual device used to drown carbonated bubbles out loud remains intact, at Rendaiji, an approximately 1,300-year-old Buddhist temple in the town of Kurashiki, western Japan, which served as a regular place of worship for local daimyos .
Called otokeshi no tsubo, or âsound drowning urn,â it stands at the back of the temple guest building. It consists of a bronze vessel measuring approximately 50 cm in diameter at the top of a 2 meter high stone column. When opened, a tap attached to the side of the urn releases water which hits a baked clay slab on the ground. Voila, old white noise.
A guest bathroom is located behind the unit. When a daimyo of the Ikeda clan stayed in the guest quarters, those around him, it is believed, turned on the faucet while the daimyo was in the bathroom.
“Formerly, a suikinkutsu, which resonates with a splashing sound, was installed under the baked clay slab to increase it, “said Zoju Saeki, vice-abbot of the temple.” Thus, the device drowned out the shameful sound with the beautiful sound of water. “
The sound drowning urn was installed in 1799 when the temple was rebuilt after a fire.
âAt the time,â Saeki said, âthe only places that had such a device were Rendaiji and the section of Edo Castle where the shogun’s wife and concubines lived, before he began to be used more widely across Japan.
“But this temple is the only place where it is kept as it was in the past.”
Etiquette Tone and other sound drowning devices have resurrected the old sound curtains. But modern accessories have an additional goal: to reduce water consumption.
Through a survey, Toto found that women surveyed flush the toilet an average of 2.3 times when using the toilet without a sound princess, but on average 1.5 times otherwise. In an office where 400 women work, the device can save 5,500 kiloliters of water per year and costs about 3.86 million yen ($ 34,000), according to the company.
“The initial goal [for Orihara Manufacturing to develop the Etiquette Tone] was to save water consumption, âsaid Iwao Yano, head of the company’s sales team. When the product debuted, Tokyo was hit by abnormal drought. and demonstrated the pleasing tones so members can appreciate the benefits of the accessory, according to Yano.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Lixil and Toto have expanded their toilet designs with lids that automatically close before flushing, preventing viruses from being splashed and taking flight. Many water control devices, not just those used in the bathroom, now have touchless features that allow users to operate without touching.
Japan toiletries, developed by designers attentive to the subtle needs of users, have helped noisy intestines avoid embarrassment, reduce water intake, and potentially stay away from viruses. They have taken their place in an ancient toilet culture that is likely to continue to evolve.