TOKYO -- When Japan's Toto installed high-tech toilets at Narita Airport near Tokyo some years ago, the aim was to promote bidets by letting visitors try them upon arrival.
Electric bidets had not taken off abroad, where just 3% of U.S. households have adopted them, against an 80%-plus adoption rate in Japan.
Now a wave of momentum has come upon Japanese manufacturers as American consumers cast a fresh glance at ways to clean up without paper.
Bidets are on the rise in not only America, but also Australia and elsewhere, according to Steven Scheer, president of California-based Brondell.
Brondell, which sells bidet seats and other toilet accessories mostly in North America, saw orders triple through March and April when toilet paper vanished from store shelves. Things have settled down a little since then, but demand is still high, the company says.
And "this could be the tipping point that finally gets us to adopt the bidet," Miki Agrawal, founder and chief creative officer at add-on bidet seller Tushy, told People magazine.
Tushy offers bidet attachments starting at $79, as well as a portable alternative. Sales are now 10 times what the company had planned for, pushing it to expand production capacity.
The modern bidet seat was first popularized for medical use in the U.S. and Europe, but it never quite went mainstream in America. In Japan, however, ordinary consumers embraced the concept. More than 80% of households of two or more members now have bidet seats on their toilets.
Now, American consumers increasingly see the bidet as a hygienic and environmentally friendly alternative.
Big-name Japanese players are gearing up to take advantage. Toto has seen sales of its Washlet bidet seats double on the year in the January-March period. It aims to sell more than 2 million units overseas in fiscal 2022 -- triple the fiscal 2017 figure.
Lixil Group has made aggressive inroads into the field since acquiring American Standard in 2013. It launched an online campaign in March promoting its bidets as an alternative to toilet paper, doubling U.S. sales on the year that month.
But the pandemic has proved a mixed blessing. Toto suffered temporary disruptions at key production facilities due to parts shortages. Sales networks in U.S. urban areas have ground to a halt as residents stay home.
The global market for bidets will reach nearly $4.9 billion by the end of 2026 -- up roughly 30% from 2020 -- according to a 360 Research Reports forecast posted on the MarketWatch financial news website.