Friday, July 21, 2017

Stinking Gaijin!; Japan and Body Odor

Summer is here and peak mushi-atsui (humid-heat) season is upon us.
This exacerbates one of the more difficult and socially awkward situations for foreigners; being perceived as “kusai” (stinky, bad-smelling) by Japanese people.

As a traditional monoculture, Japan is very keen to play up the “otherness” of foreigners. Since medieval era sailors visited Japan, there have been many references to the different smell of westerners in history and pop-culture. Notoriously, however, 16th century seamen were not the best ambassadors of fragrance. You see this “unwashed foreigner” trope in many western made movies about old Japan; such as Shogun (a 1975 novel turned 1980 TV series) and The Last Samurai (Tom Cruise film from 2003).
The post-WWII occupation culture popularized the “batta-kusai” image of foreigners, leading Japanese to prejudge westerners as “stinking of butter.” Beef seems to be another dietary staple that Japanese people credit for the foreign stink.

Confrontations about body odor can be particularly frictious. In workplaces it is normal to approach a manager a with complaints about coworkers, rather than confronting them directly.
I have heard numerous stories about foreign English teachers being coached-up in regards to their smell.
Children tend to be unencumbered by social mores and unfiltered in their speech, so they are quick to say if someone is “kusai” or “stinky,” many foreign English teachers will be working with children in this age group.
Another common situation is the covert way that some Japanese people on the train will get up and stand elsewhere if a foreigner sits next to them on the train; this is a subtle and mysterious gesture which may represent other factors or prejudices.

Wakiga and Genetics

Wakiga (腋臭) is the Japanese term for “body odor” in general and, in particular, refers to a strong or abnormal underarm odor.
Japanese people tend to sweat less and have a weak body odor. There is some quantifiable science behind this statement. The skin contains two types of sweat glands; the eccrine glands (that secrete through pores) and apocrine glands (which secrete through the hair follicles and hair). The apocrine gland secretions are more apt to provide a base for stinky bacteria.

However there is a difference between the balance of eccrine and apocrine glands which is based on genetics. Different racial groups have different genetic dispositions in this regard which are genetically related to the A allele (eccrine type) or G allele (apocrine). African-Americans have the highest rate of G alleles at nearly 100% (surprisingly, Africans have a slightly lower rate), while Koreans have the lowest rate at about 0%. And Japanese people have a low rate of G alleles (about 20%) and Europeans have a high rate (about 80%).
Another characteristic of the G allele is damp, soft earwax while A allele people have dry and flaky earwax.
Apocrine glands have also been associated with pheromones in some studies. The glands themselves become active after puberty and sweat is often linked to sex hormones.

The Smell of Culture?

Of course there are lifestyle factors that affect your personal odor; diet (which affects your body chemistry as well as the food odors that cling to hair and clothes while influencing breath odor) bathing (showering is not as good at removing fatty lipids the are secreted with sweat), fragrances (perfume/cologne, deodorant, laundry detergent, soap…). Your culture may affect your sensitivity to odors; some things you will ignore because of a cultural acclimation and other things will strike you as foreign or novel.
Walking through the Korea Town section of Osaka (especially under Tsuruhashi station) visitors may find it hard to breathe with the overwhelming smell of kimchi saturating the atmosphere. Japanese people are aware of how rare it is for foreigners to tolerate the smell of natto and they seem to delight in watching the over reaction of foreigners gagging on those stinky, sticky fermented soy beans. Specifically, I am not sure what smell characterizes “gaijin no nioi” (the smell of foreigners) to Japanese people, and they will rarely articulate anything more specific than simply “kusai!” (stinky!).

Dealing with “gaijin-no-nioi” in Japan
Japanese drug store carry their own brands of deodorants. They are generally lightly scented, depend on alcohol for cleaning and make heavy use of menthol for a sense of cool in the summer. American made deodorants (heavily scented with anti-perspirants) are not available in stores, therefore they are a common request for the contents of care packages sent from relatives back home.
The most popular deodorants are the Nivea 8x4 (eight-four) roll-on sticks and the Biore body sheets (both made by the Kao company) are sold in drug stores and convenience stores. Baby powder is useful but relatively difficult to find in Japan (limited quantities, few stores and high prices and sold in inconvenient tubs rather than bottles with an applicator).
At most workplaces you will have your own desk or locker. You can use this space to keep deodorant sticks and/or wipes as well as a change of clothes. I recommend keeping a complete set of fresh, work appropriate closes (button up or polo shirts and khakis in my schools); this includes socks and underwear as an entire set of clothes can get drenched while commuting in the rain, even if you are using an umbrella and simply walking from the nearest station.
People in Japan are apparently concerned about triggering socially awkward situations. Given the passive nature of Japanese society (especially in the workplace), you may not know about your own smell until the situation has snowballed. This has led to recent examples of invention and marketing; similar to the way that the fear of halitosis was invented by Listerine by acknowledging to politeness and passivity of formal social situations. The Konika company (based in Japan) has created a device called the "Kunkun Body" which is designed to detect unpleasant odors and warn the user through a connected smart phone app (but the device costs about 30,000 yen). Interestingly, the device is supposed to be able to detect three types of scents: sweat, "middle-fat" and "kareishuu" ( 加齢臭 old person smell).

Warning; lengthy anecdote ahead!
A foreigner once worked in an international pre-school; a building that cares for children under the age of 6 (many of whom were in diapers), in an English speaking environment, with a mix of education and childcare. International schools are staffed with foreigners as language specialists, Japanese staff members, managers and  (this is important) a certified child care employee. The person with the child care certificate is required by regulations for this business to operate, so they are the most important and most difficult person on staff to replace.
The foreigner often found the certified person to be heavy-handed with the children and with odd “aggro” anti-social personality, so she was never really pleased with anyone while male employees seemed especially wary of her. She would often complain about the body odor of men working there; to the manager, other employees and the children but not directly.
The business owner/manager acted as an intermediary for complaints; the apparently offers precursory complaints and the manager arranges formal meeting with the other person (would you call them the “defendant”? The “offender”?). One meeting went like this:
Manager: “[so-and-so] sensei has been complaining. She says that you smell bad. I tried to smell you. I don’t see the problem. But I am old [about 67], so I can not smell things well. But young ladies, you know...
Do you… take a shower?”
Foreigner: “Yes, I take showers twice a day.”
Manager: Hmm, do you use … soap?
Foreigner: Soap, shampoo, deodorant…
Manager: Ah, maybe that is it! Japanese people don’t like strong perfume.
Foreigner: OK [not knowing if the co-worker complained about a sweat smell, perfume smell or general “kusai”]
Manager:  Please, wash your work clothes everyday.

After work, at home-
Foreigner: My coworker said I stink, please come here and smell me. Do I smell bad.
Male Japanese sharehouse-mate: No. I don’t smell anything.

Between the first meeting and the second a child [4 years old] approached and said
“[so-and-so] sensei said you are ‘stinky.’”
Foreigner: “Am I stinky now?”
[student shrugs his shoulders], apparently he was not offended by any smell.

Within the week the manager called in the foreigner again.
Manager: Please try to get along with [so-and-so].
Foreigner: ?
Manager: She still says that you smell bad. She complains all the time.
Foreigner: Is it because I sweat a lot? It is summer and we are really active with the kids. Maybe I need another uniform shirt so I can change at lunch.
Manager: Why do you sweat so much? Are you doing some sports before school?
Foreigner: Sometimes, I do kendo AT NIGHT, after school.
Manager: Ah, kendo stuff is stinky, right? You should stop doing kendo…?
Foreigner: [*frowns to suggest that a line is being crossed]
Manager: Do you live with other foreigners?
Foreigner: Yes, I live in a sharehouse, half of the people are foreigners.
Manager: Do you share a washing machine?
Foreigner: Yes.
Manager: Ahh. Do you clean inside the washing machine?
Foreigner: [Is that a thing that people do, somehow?]…?
Manager: You should go to a coin laundromat to wash your uniform.
Manager: [so-and-so] apologized to the parents [about an incident in which she hurt some kids]. Don’t be angry. Let’s be friends.

The foreigner gave notice that he was quitting soon afterwards. The manager called the immigration office, spoke to an immigration officer. The immigration officer met the foreigner at the immigration office, punched a hole in his gaijin card and simply said “you must leave Japan.” The foreigner briefly went to Korea, came back to a new job and changed his visa.