They say necessity is the mother of invention. In Japan, everything from limited resources to an ageing population has provided inspiration. Last year, momentum came from an unexpected source: the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.
Technologies that have spawned after the triple disaster range from smartphones that test for radiation to prefabricated eco-houses designed to withstand earthquakes while reducing energy consumption. Linking these inventions together is a belief that state-of-the-art design can help improve – or even save – lives.
“[The disaster] has certainly caused a huge rethinking and soul searching,” says Azby Brown, director of Tokyo-based Future Design Institute. In spite of the immediate concerns following last year’s crisis, which might have forced consumers to compromise, standards for products have remained high.
Smartphones are a typical example. In the west, a smartphone might give you the weather forecast; in Japan, they test for radiation. The country is still reeling from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant meltdown, the world’s worst nuclear crisis in more than two decades, and concern over radiation levels remains high. To help assuage anxieties SoftBank Corp released the world’s first phone with a built-in radiation detector last summer. The Sharp Pantone 5 107SH has a sensor chip that measures radiation exposure hourly.
Such innovation is nothing new, of course, in a country renowned for its futuristic designs. Japan has been at the forefront of technological innovation for decades and nowhere is this more apparent than in the home.
In August the Japanese housing equipment manufacturer Lixil launched its “comma house” – a prefabricated “smart house” that the company hopes will be widespread across Japan by 2020. Developed in collaboration with the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science, the airtight house is thermally insulated and earthquake-resistant. Features include thermal solar panels and a water-conserving toilet. Ecocarat, an interior wall material, will absorb harmful substances and help control humidity.
The bathroom is, undoubtedly, one of the most important rooms in the Japanese home. The country’s wealth of natural hotsprings has created a long history of ritual bathing, and a bathtub is mandatory in even the smallest of living spaces. In Japan baths are not for soaking off dirt (it is customary to scrub oneself clean beforehand) but are rather sanctuaries for relaxation.
Lixil wants to revolutionise the way the Japanese bathe by replacing water with foam. Last April the company launched the foam bath, which has a comfortable soft surface designed to retain heat and reduce “pain in the buttocks and other discomfort associated with a long bath”. Foam bath additive, described as similar to “fresh cream” or “meringue”, is added to the water to create a seal of bubbles that preserves the water temperature. Half-water, half-foam, this hybrid bath reduces water consumption by half, according to Lixil. But priced at ¥2.5m (£20,375) minus installation fees, it is, for now, unlikely to make waves. (Plans to sell the bath outside Japan are yet to be confirmed.)
A bathroom isn’t complete, however, without a high-tech toilet that can perform a range of tasks, from playing classical music to wafting scents into the air. The Washlet, which is manufactured by Toto, has become commonplace in homes across the country. In April, Toto announced sales of 30m Washlets in just over three decades – the majority in Japan.
The Washlet operates a self-cleaning nozzle that releases a warm pressurised stream of water to clean the backside. Remote control operation, hands-free flush, drying functions, heated seats and purifying built-in air deodorisers are also included in units that cost from ¥70,000 to ¥170,000 (£569 to £1,383).
“The Japanese attitude towards the toilet has been matter of fact and practical,” says Brown. “It has never been a shameful thing, and I think that has been the impetus for people to design it and make it comfortable – not necessarily to celebrate it, but certainly to make it a dignified place.”
Innovation doesn’t stop there. A future device Japanese consumers can look forward to is a reissued cheaper and improved version of the “Miuro” robotic sound system. The egg-shaped, mobile, radio-controlled robot was first released by Tokyo-based ZMP Inc in 2006; 500 units of the limited edition, which were priced between ¥100,000 and ¥200,000, sold out within months. Now ZMP is looking to release a second batch, reducing the cost for consumers by half after moving production to China.
The robot is not only clever (it can remember time and place and can move autonomously on wheels), it might just become a necessity. The new Miuro, which can be operated remotely and is able to transmit pictures to your personal computer via a webcam, will be a boost to Japan’s increasingly aged society, predicts ZMP’s Nobuko Imanishi. Miuro can keep an eye on those who are home alone through a live camera feed; if anything happens, Miuro can connect to the police or hospital. “Our vision is to create a new lifestyle with robotic technology,” says Imanishi.
Transforming lifestyles is one thing; buying a novelty toy another. Imanishi describes the robot as a “kind of pet”: when you clap Miuro will zoom towards you blasting music. Whether ZMP is able to pull off a second edition remains to be seen. But watching the original prototype dance in the ZMP headquarters – first, twisting gracefully to Norah Jones, then rocking back and forth to Eminem – there is no doubt that if it does, it will be a hell of a lot of fun.