Ahead Yet Behind; Remote-Controlled Loos That Wash and Blow Dry Your Bottom, Lights That Switch Themselves off and Fridges That Tell You When to Eat. Yet Women Are Expected to Marry Young and Are Pitied If They Have to Work. So Is Technology-Mad Japan.(News)

Article excerpt

Byline: STEPHEN MARTIN

THERE'S no getting away from it - pride of place in the Takahashi family home goes to the toilet.

In Ireland a WC is a WC. In Japan it's a futuristic statement, a room to be packed with as much gadgetry as possible.

In the land of the rising sun and heated loo seat you keep up with the Joneses by having the most hi-tech toilet on the street.

It's with genuine delight that businessman Toshio Takahashi guides us to the little boy's room, first stop on our tour of the James Bond-style gizmos crammed into his home.

As the Irish football team arrive for the World Cup in Japan and Korea, they will discover that the electrically-heated toilet seat is standard. Even the most modest households in Japan have one. It's the extras that count - starting with the fact the loo doubles as a bidet.

Impressed? You will be when you discover it has a built-in blow-dryer which dries your backside with a blast of warm air.

The wonders don't stop there. The moment you sit down, a fan clicks in automatically to "deodorise" the air below.

Fascinated by personal hygiene to the point of obsession, the Japanese hate to even touch a toilet if they don't have to. That's why the Takahashi loo has a remote control unit tucked beneath the hand basin. It controls the temperature of the seat, operates the bidet and, most importantly, flushes the thing.

And if this sounds like make-believe, remember this is super-clean Japan, home to chemist's shops selling hand deodorant and bad-breath tester kits. Even the lights in the Takahashi toilet are automatic, and switch themselves off if no-one has been in the room for five minutes.

Father-of-two Mr Takahashi, 55, had his home built 10 years ago and apologises for it being a bit "out-of-date". And in gadget-mad Japan, it is. The Takahashis have neither a talking fridge to tell them when to eat (you program in the sell-by dates of your food), nor a satellite link to switch on the cooker from your mobile phone.

They do have a lift to connect the first-floor quarters of Mr Takahashi and wife Sachiko, with their son, Munetoshi, 24 and daughter Akito, 26, who live on the second floor.

On the third floor, also accessible by lift, is the guest area where we are being entertained. It is also home to the nerve centre for the heating and lighting system.

FROM two panels next to the kitchen, building firm boss Mr Takahashi, 55, can turn on, off or dim the lights in every room. He can set the temperature too. There's an individual control panel inside each room but Mr Takahashi explains it's easier from the master switch.

Although it can reach 38C in Tokyo in the summer, winters can be cold, hence the need for underfloor heating. It is, Mrs Takahashi explains, vital to get the timing right when you have the luxury of a living room floor made of marble.

"The marble is very nice," she says with modest understatement, "but it takes three hours to heat up."

The kitchen has a special moisturising fridge for fresh fruit and veg and a temperature-controlled red wine cabinet for Mr Takahashi's prized collection of Bordeaux.

"With the air conditioning and heating coming on at different levels, it's important for the wine to be kept at a constant temperature," he says.

There's no rubbish in the kitchen (a hygiene risk), so all waste is popped through a hatch above the sink. It disappears down a chute to a trash can in Mrs Takahashi's cleaning room. There are hi-fi speakers in every room, allowing the Takahashis to pipe the 400 cable music channels they subscribe to all around the home.

When we arrive, the hall is playing light classical, while the guest floor hums to instrumentals of Billy Joel numbers.

In the basement garage, the electric shutters roll up and the family's two runaround saloons come into view. …