Could the Japanese economy be saved by the intelligent toilet?
Every day in every way Japan is becoming more and more important. The world's second biggest economy may be stuck on the rocks of deflation but even the newspaper articles that try to convince us that we are not heading in the same direction make riveting reading.
With the Nikkei index at a 20-year low, trading at less than a quarter of its 1990 volume, the Japanese economy has been stagnant or shrinking for a decade. Its corporate sector is choked with heavily indebted property, retail, and construction companies that are trapped in an undeclared insolvency, with too many bad debts and too few customers to borrow from banks that have their own £250 billion bad debt problem. No wonder business commentators here and in the US have started to talk about a second Great Depression. The whole Japan thing holds a gloomy fascination everywhere.
Everywhere, that is, except in Japan. There, above the cloudbase of the stultified macro economy, a feverish culture of designer Keynesianism called Chindogu has developed, its growing number of exponents cheerfully working long hours in cramped innovation centres producing potentially marketable novelty items such as the portable zebra crossing, the golf hoe (weed your garden while practising your swing), and the 360 degree panorama camera.
The line between ingenuity and farce lies at the heart of Chindogu but it is a mistake to dismiss its potential on the strength of the ideas of its lunatic fringe. For every solar-powered cigarette lighter, there is a driver-operated taxi door, and for every driver-operated door, there is a Walkman and a global market opening up for it.
It is in this spirit of suspended disbelief that we should consider the recent focus of Japanese ingenuity on the development of the flushing toilet and its seat. The small ideas here have all been focused on the automation of the person/machine interface encountered when going to the loo. At first, the gadgets were simple - the flushing action has operated the warm water tap on the wash hand basin on upmarket Japanese toilets for years - but lately the proliferation of support functions has begun to leap from the quaintly exotic to the seriously medical.
One recent invention is a toilet that glows in the dark and lifts its lid when an infrared sensor detects the presence of a human being, while a competitor has announced a lavatory that does all that too, but also deodorises the bathroom and resets its temperature for every user by means of warm or cool air jets. Yet another at the prelaunch stage of development opens its lid in response to a verbal command and uses a voice synthesiser to greet users by name and offer them personalised advice.
But these seem frivolous by comparison with the line of inquiry being followed by Matsushita Electric, one of the biggest innovators in the toilet field. Matsushita has taken up the idea of the 'throne' as a diagnostic device capable of giving a BMI (Body Mass Index) reading for every user by passing a small electric current through their buttocks. But the company plans to go farther, turning the whole bathroom into a home diagnostic centre and the toilet into a means of measuring weight, fat, blood pressure, heart rate, urine sugar, blood and albumen. These readouts will be sent to the users' doctor as text messages by a cellular phone built into the toilet, providing a means for remote health monitoring.
It might seem impossible that a humble device like a toilet could bust the Japanese economy loose from its pack ice of deflation, but it is not entirely impossible. Like nearly all Chindogu ideas, it is already 49 per cent brilliant.