One of the things Japan is famous for is its fancy toilets. There are ‘washlets’ that wash and dry your nether regions for you, heated toilet seats (take it from me – you should not use these after coming inside from below freezing temperatures like I did once after skiing – you’ll feel like you’ve seared your rump off), and even the delightfully named 音姫 (‘Sound Princess’) which makes a noise to cover up any audible productions of your own in public restrooms.
As it turns out, these ‘super toilets’ may just be the perfect example of the kinds of financial compromises we are willing – and not so willing – to make when it comes to personal comfort.
In addition to words, we of course often communicate through visual means as well, and Japanese ‘super-toilets’ have almost as many symbols as the emoji keyboard on your phone. Manufacturers of washlets in Japan recently reached a landmark historic agreement to standardise the oft-perplexing symbols on these so-called ‘super toilets’ and to provide English translations in advance of the 2020 Olympics.
Yet despite many attempts to introduce Japanese-style ‘comfort’ and ‘cleansing’, these toilets haven’t really taken off in many other countries. Recently in Greece and Russia, finding toilets that could handle the flushing of toilet paper was a luxury for me. On our first night in Japan, however, we had a fully-equipped Japanese washlet.
Why aren’t washlets popular elsewhere?
As David Mitchell points out, in his superb book Thinking About it Only Makes it Worse, the reason could be because ‘we’re nervous of entrusting a vital orifice to the tender mercies of an array of electric squirters, deodorisers and driers’, or more simply – ‘because they’re expensive’.
Mitchell says his ex-flatmate calls such decisions ‘valve decisions’ because there’s ‘no going back’. On the basis that ‘If you get used to a new technology, you start to need it’ he refused to watch the tennis in high definition, fearing that he would never be satisfied with watching it in standard definition again.
Live like a student
I’ve often believed that one of the secrets to success, post graduation, is to continue living like a student. If you keep living a uni student lifestyle on a graduate salary, you’ll be able to save much more than your counterparts who, sucked into the ‘lifestyle inflation’ that all too often follows new jobs, raises or promotions, find their ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ expanding to fit (or even exceed) their means.
To be clear, a ‘student lifestyle’ does not have to mean a life of two-minute noodles and cheap beer. You can buy fresh vegetables and meat from the markets for the same cost. Instead, what I am referring to is being satisfied with a basic lifestyle and worrying less about how our spending is perceived by others. For many of us fortunate enough to have received a college education, our university years are a time of developing friendships and independence, and intellectual curiosity – as opposed to the more consumerism-driven later years. But there’s no reason not to continue to prioritise relationships and education over buying the latest gadgets or fashion.
Take Mitchell’s example of purchasing wine – ‘When I was a student, everyone bought the cheapest bottle – the £3 red. But then, at some point, a mixture of shame and a sense of entitlement, or the prospect of a dinner party at which the origin of each brought bottle will be impossible to conceal, makes you spend a but more, go for the £5. This does not merely equate to an extra cost of £2, but £2 multiplied by the number of bottles of wine you will buy for the rest of your life. It’s another valve decision’.
Importantly, when we graduate, or when we get a job, or when we receive a raise or promotion, it’s not just one thing that we start refusing to compromise on, but often many.
‘I deserve 4 ply toilet tissue now.’
‘Once you’ve gotten used to this brand of coffee you’ll never go back’
‘I don’t know how I ever lived without my whizz-bang appliance’
‘I’m worth it‘ we tell ourselves.
Tens or hundreds of little valve decisions, that cumulatively, and over a lifetime, add up to a lot.
From little things, big bills – and debts – grow
Say you purchase around 20 items each week, and pay $1 extra per item on average to buy the next category up. $2.50 for a mid-range, branded loaf of bread rather than the cheapest $1.50 loaf. $4.00 for the more expensive, branded pack of frozen chips. And so on.
Over the span of a year, that’s over $1,000. And over a lifetime, $62,400.
Think about what you’re saying
When people say things like ‘I don’t know how I lived without my dishwasher’, David Mitchell says what they mean is ‘I have come to despise my former existence and now have an addict’s need of the money that provides the equipment to save me from a return to it.’
What is interesting about Japan is the other kind of toilet it’s famous for – the much more basic squat toilet, still found in public restrooms around the country.
Someone who enjoys the comforts of a premium washlet at home might be perfectly happy to use a much more basic squat toilet while out, and likewise, someone happy to use a high-tech washlet facility at an exclusive department store or hotel might see no need to install one at home.
The case of Japan generally demonstrates that ‘valve decisions’ are really only valve decisions if we choose to let them be. There’s no reason that you can’t enjoy watching your favourite sport or other event in high definition, and then still enjoy standard definition broadcasts afterwards. There’s no reason you can’t buy the expensive brand of ice cream as a special treat and still enjoy the cheaper version on a regular basis.
If there really was ‘no going back’ we would have no special occasions at all. We’d be totally incapable of handling any day that wasn’t our birthday.
‘Valve decisions’ are really just psychological barriers – but we put up so many of them.
Some people find comfort in valve decisions – ‘I never have to live like that again’.
But I find comfort in resilience. For two reasons – firstly, because I know that I am capable of surviving – and thriving – on less if I have to. Secondly, because I know that I can enjoy the special things life has to offer – be that a beautiful sunset, time spent with friends, a special meal out, or, indeed, the use of a washlet – without the fear that I’ll be incapable of future enjoyment when that opportunity has passed.
What valve decisions have you experienced?
Have you ever used a washlet? Please share any funny experiences in the comments!
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Today’s featured image is of course the washlet controls from the toilet at our first guest house in Japan!