SENDAI--Japanese toilets may be world-renowned for their technology and complexity, but a small plumbing company here has elevated the lavatory game to an art form--literally.
Taikou Juken Corp. took the white of toilet bowls as blank canvases to develop an innovative product, decorating them with typically Japanese images of mascot characters or ukiyo-e scenes.
"Artoletta," as the gimmick is called, is intended to take the spirit of "omotenashi" (hospitality), Japan’s slogan for the promotion of inbound tourism, a step further by adding a new artistic aspect to the bathroom experience.
Images of "Musubimaru," Miyagi Prefecture’s mascot for promoting tourism, greet visitors to stalls in a restroom inside the ticket gates at the Sendai Airport train station on the Sendai Airport Access Line, where the toilet bowl lids are adorned with the pictures.
"Some customers come here just to take a look at our restroom," an official with the train line operator said, adding that the introduction of the Musubimaru bowls three years ago has prompted cleaner use of the lavatory by the public when nature calls.
Taikou Juken, which is based in Sendai’s Izumi Ward, has only seven employees, but it has big plans for its novelty product. Its beginnings date to the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.
The company’s staff began rushing around to repair waterworks immediately after the disaster struck northeastern Japan. People staying in evacuation shelters in affected areas were rapturous when they were able to use flush toilets again.
But things took a sharp turn for the worse within just a few days.
Feces were seen left on the floor and on lavatory bowls, emitting foul odors.
"It was like in public restrooms of bygone years," said Koji Akama, Taikou Juken’s 39-year-old CEO.
The company’s workers were asked to do something about the problem, but sanitary matters and people’s manners were beyond their control. Many people left evacuation shelters because they no longer wanted to use the restrooms in them.
It had always been taken for granted that toilets would be available, but with the changed situation, Akama realized for the first time that restrooms were being perceived as negative places that people thought were OK to leave dirty.
Akama was shocked to learn about this attitude. He may have been a professional specializing in restrooms, but had never thought so deeply on the matter, and he wondered what he could do about it.
One day when Akama was reading a book, he came across a quote from Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple Inc., saying that a personal computer looked like a canvas.
It dawned upon Akama that a white toilet bowl could also serve as a canvas.
The CEO, who had previously aspired to be a dress designer, made up his mind that he would draw on the potential of design to create a lavatory space that people would be embarrassed to leave filthy.
The road to product commercialization was far from smooth. The only way to decorate ceramic toilet pans with images was to cover them with transparent sheets, which had to be durable enough that they would not come off even when polished by cleaners many times a day.
The company also had to find a method for drawing images on curved lavatory bowl surfaces without distorting them.
It took Taikou Juken three years to develop a special sheet product that met the requirements. The company also established technology for printing sheets and applying it through the handwork of artisans in accordance with the geometry of the toilet pan.
The name Artoletta combines "art" with "toletta," the Italian for toilet, and the product has found acclaim in Italy. Taikou Juken has entered it to design competitions in the country as well as in Japan, with considerable success.
Last year, the Artoletta won a bronze award at a competition in Italy and a gold award for the Omotenashi Selection, a collection of products and services that come with typically Japanese traits.
A toilet bowl decorated with Toshusai Sharaku’s ukiyo-e work earned Akama a place among the 50 "top creators" selected by Tokyo Design Week in 2016.
Akama is currently looking toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. He has been pitching the product to hotels patronized by non-Japanese guests and to department stores, arguing that his company’s lavatory utensils could be used to express the four seasons of Japan and promote sightseeing in the country.
"I hope to wow the world with our 'hospitality toilet’ of a superlative class from Sendai," Akama said, adding that his company is preparing to set up an operation base in Dubai, home to many wealthy people, and also has plans for expanding into Europe.