Philip Hensher: When it comes to loos, Japan's are the business

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The Independent Online

Going to the lavatory in Japan is a perfect delight. For a start, when you sit down, the seat is gloriously warm – not with that horrid just-vacated warmth, but a considerate radiator-warmth. When you are done, the neat little console at the side offers, with self-explanatory diagrams, a range of options: an upward sprinkle of water, a more forceful shower, or the Laser Beam, adjustable in temperature, but highly suitable for waking you up in the morning. Then, if you're lucky, there might be – I don't know how else to put this – a miniature anal hair-dryer, lodged under the rim. Bliss.

Most peoples of the world clean themselves not with tissue paper but with water, though most of them do not have the luxury of the Japanese refinements. If you think about it, the habit of using paper at this point is really rather a disgusting one. When you flush it away, it doesn't disappear. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of soaking filthy toilet paper, clogging up the drains and sitting around in great clumps for some unfortunate to deal with. The Greek imprecation not to flush away your toilet paper, but place it in a small bin by the side of the lavatory – in the heat of the summer, too – is revolting enough. Our habits of disposal only don't strike us because we flush the horrible stuff away to be dealt with by someone else.

Travelling round Japan a month or two back, and getting accustomed to the delights of what we took to calling the Robot Bum-Butler, it did occur to us that really, very few advancements in toilet technology have taken place in the West for decades. I'm old enough to remember a world where toilets were always flushed with a pull of the chain, but neither the lever nor the push-button replacement seem much of an advancement on those 19th-century models. The dual-button flush, allowing you to choose between volumes of water according to what you are flushing away, was apparently invented in Australia in 1980. It does seem like one of those household appliances which, like the iron, hasn't been given much thought since the 19th century. And then you go to Japan.

In a tantalising interview this week, Kunio Harimoto, the president of the Japanese bathroom and kitchen ceramics firm Toto, said that he has great ambitions for expansion of his firm's electronic lavatories, or washlets, into Europe and North America. At present, Toto sell fewer than 2,000 washlets in North America every year, out of total sales – mostly in Japan and, increasingly, China – of 1.5 million.

The problems he faces are considerable – different plumbing systems in every European country, and, significantly, a total lack of electrical sockets in European bathrooms, where every Japanese bathroom has one. There is, too, a possible problem with environmental considerations. Though a washlet will use less water than a Western model, it also uses electricity – one 25th of all household electricity consumption in Japan.

Still, Toto is not the sort of company to stand still, and, astonishingly, they employ 800 research engineers and have an annual research budget of 12bn yen, or £78m. They can certainly overcome some of these perceived problems in their forthcoming products. I guess that a combination of laziness and embarrassment has for years stopped us in Western Europe thinking seriously about ways to improve a fundamental human experience, and what the Arabs call "the room everyone goes to" has been much the same for a hundred years. I must say, I look forward either to Toto taking over the European lavatory market, or European firms making an effort with comparable products. If my Japanese experience was anything to go by, in 20 years we will wonder at the way we used to live.

Viewing minorities deserve better than Big Brother

Nobody at all is watching Big Brother this year. I haven't seen a single episode, and not one person of my acquaintance has raised it in conversation, though I don't suppose it's really any worse or less interesting than in previous years. Viewing figures, in this 10th year of the series, are so catastrophically low, and getting lower, that you can't believe it can carry on much longer. Some episodes have registered a bare million viewers, which truly qualifies it for a minority interest.

If Big Brother, formerly identified as Channel 4's bid for mass popularity, has now become the interest of a very small minority of viewers, what shall we do with those more traditional minority interests that television once dealt with? Do we suppose that an hour of Bach cello suites in front of a white background, a broadcast of ballet or opera, or indeed what television hasn't had for years, a programme of discussion about books, would garner a smaller audience than the exhausted format of Big Brother? More to the point, do we believe that these specialist audiences would ever be in any danger of declining at the same precipitous rate?

So find me a book about Hampstead adultery

My old friend and colleague Johann Hari was ticking off novelists in these pages last week for our lack of get-up-and-go, suggesting that we would be very much better writers if we took the trouble to go to the Congo or to a "run-down estate in Bradford". I myself, alas, have written not one but two whole novels set somewhere I simply couldn't be bothered to go to. Like Stephen Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage before going to war, I thought it would be much easier to make the whole thing up. Johann's sensible words did make me feel extremely guilty.

I will pick a small quarrel with him, however, for his complaint that what we are all doing instead is writing "endless tales of middle-class adultery in Hampstead". The novel of adultery in Hampstead has, for many years now, been a stand-by when people want to give the contemporary English novel a bashing. But what are these novels of Hampstead adultery? I read as many contemporary novels as anyone, and I find it terribly difficult to think of a single one from the last 30 years concerned with adultery, set in Hampstead. Like a desert mirage, those novelists who one feels ought to be writing about adultery in Hampstead dissolve as soon as you look at them, their subjects something quite different. Could it be that, in adultery in Hampstead, we have identified the one subject entirely neglected by contemporary English novelists?