The Routine goes like this: Scene: an expatriate dining room. Profiteroles are being served.
Raw foreigner: Excuse me, darling, but where's the ..? Could I ..?
Hostess: Of course, it's the little door on the left, just behind the . . . that's the one!
Hostess looks knowingly around assembled guests. Guests fall silent with sadistic smirks. Somebody sniggers.
Raw foreigner (off): Eek!
She scampers back in, water dripping from clothes, hair and earrings.
Raw foreigner: It ... it just went off in my face!
Assembled guests convulse with laughter, fall off their chairs, choke on their profiteroles.
There are few more dangerous and unpredictable domestic appliances than the Japanese lavatory. The torture comes in two kinds. At one end of the scale are the traditional squat lavatories still found in a surprising number of offices and railway stations. The hazards of these are familiar to many travellers in Asia. You need the calf muscles of a hardened skier to suspend yourself painlessly over the ceramic trough. Even when you are in position there is the constant danger of change, keys and perhaps passports slipping out of pockets and into the abyss.
But just as deadly in their way are the top end of the range: the techno- toilets which are de rigueur in well-to-do homes. The simplest model is called the Warmlet and contains a heating element in the seat - very comforting on cold days. Then there is the Washlet, a much more complicated affair, with a bank of controls which would not be out of place on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. As well as the heater, it features a bidet and blow-dryer - all in the single ceramic bowl. Each function has its own button, and there are dials controlling the power and temperature of the water jet. The problem is the functions are labelled only in Japanese.
This was the undoing of the victim at the dinner party. Having finished her lavatory business and washed her hands, she chose a button at random, hoping it was the flush. Immediately, a small, angled nozzle extended itself with a whir from under the rim. Without warning, it sprayed hot water straight into her face. She will never make that mistake again.
The ingenuity of the toilet wizards is not confined to the private home. Many urinals in public buildings are equipped with a light sensor which detects the presence of a customer and flushes automatically when he moves away.
Plans have just been unveiled to install a new type of mobile toilet for climbers on Mount Fuji. According to reports "it uses a kerosene heater to dry-burn human excrement, considerably reducing the volume of such waste and facilitating collection."
Japan's biggest toilet manufacturer is Toto, a visionary corporation which once advertised the Warmlet with the slogan: "Your bottom will like it after three tries. Don't let people say behind your back that you have a dirty bottom." Toto's big 21st-century project is the so-called Intelligent Toilet, which will automatically process and analyse waste and warn the householder in advance of any medical worries. But the company has a problem. Despite its immense domestic popularity, the Washlet has entirely failed to catch on overseas. In 1993, 720,000 techno-loos were sold at home at 100,000 yen (pounds 635) each, but only 720 in the whole of Europe, most of them to overseas Japanese. So Toto has set up an entire department - the New Concept Group - to get to the bottom of this imbalance. Questionnaires have been dispatched, and foreigners have been whisked off to mountain retreats for research weekends where their views on toilet hygiene are eagerly canvassed by marketing men.
The latest buzz is that Toto has come up with its New Concept - a "Western Washlet", tailored specifically for foreign buttocks, which will be in the shops in the next couple of years. Watch out for the Squirting Toilet Gag, coming soon to a bathroom near you.
RICHARD LLOYD PARRY