Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Body Odors

One thing that you'll notice soon after you run out of some of life's "necessities" when you come to Japan and need to go shopping is that there are very few brands of underarm deodorant in Japan. What little there is is under-sized and over-priced. The most common brand I encounter is "8x4". This is actually a German brand which is marketed in Japan and their PR states that it "leads the market" in Japan. Well, it's easy to lead the market when you've got no appreciable competition!

The reason there is so little deodorant sold in Japan is that most Japanese and Japanophile haku-jin (that's white people who believe Japanese culture and people are better than western culture and people on the whole) believe Japanese people do not stink when they sweat. The main explanation for this is that their basic diet is different. I'm not certain that this isn't true but there is really no proof one way or another.

The one thing I am certain of is that (this week alone) I passed no fewer than two Japanese people on bikes who stunk so badly of body odor that their smell powerfully wafted to me from 20 feet away. I'm pretty sure these particular parties could have used some "8x4". I'd have even purchased a can or two for them if I thought they'd accept it. There was also a tech support fellow at my former office who seemed to reek of sweat-induced body odor every single time he came by the office to fix things up. While I guess it's possible that most Japanese people aren't in need of a little unguent under the arms, clearly, some of them are. The general notion that they don't need deodorant keeps them stinking up the area rather than doing something about it.

I will note, incidentally, that it's not only Japanese people who don't require underarm deodorant. The fact is that my husband has never used it and does not smell in the least though he sweats a fair amount. This happens despite the fact that his diet is incredibly westernized. My husband's situation does leave me wondering if there are just as many western folks whose body chemistry is such that they don't need to swab their pits on a daily basis but the absolute terror at the prospect of offending others with our bodily odors is such that we apply deodorant prophylactically never knowing if we actually require it.

On a related note, there is an issue with the other side of this coin which is equally, if not sometimes more, offensive. This is the women who feel that perfume must be applied sufficiently lavishly that everyone within half a mile can smell it strongly. While I was perusing the meat section at the market today, one of the women strolling in front of me reeked so badly that I could taste her perfume. This is not a Japanese thing though. It's something that seems to occur in all cultures.

Quite some years ago when my husband was studying Japanese in a language school in Shinjuku, he had the misfortune to be placed in a class with an Indian woman who splashed on gallons of liquid flower before the class. The classroom was small and the windows never opened so he was trapped in there with this sickeningly overpowering odor. He had a word with the teacher about it to see if he could change classes or if she could do something to circulate the air so that the suffocatingly strong smell wasn't trapped in the tiny room but the teacher wouldn't or couldn't do anything about it. In the end, my husband had to quit the class because he was getting sick from the perfume.

It's interesting to note that people (mostly women) don't seem to understand that too much of a "nice" smell is as bad or worse than too much of certain types of bad ones. If I had a choice to be locked in a room with the men with B.O. or the women with the choking perfume, I'd probably take the B.O.


Miko said...

I guess you don't do a rush-hour commute, or you'd know that many people here have horrendously bad breath, especially in the mornings! I can't describe the smell, but it's horrid, and sometimes the whole train carriage literally reeks of it. I think that the concept of dental hygiene has made impressive strides in the last few years in Japan (you may have noticed yourself) but there is still a looooooong way to go, especially with certain salarymen!

I do appreciate that most people steer clear of heavy perfumes or aftershaves though, I don't think I could bear the commute otherwise.

Look up "earwax body odor" if you want to learn about a possible genetic component regarding BO. I don't think that diet has as much to do with it as some people fondly believe.

Shari said...

Fortunately, even when I was commuting,it wasn't during rush hour. However, there is a new check-out person at one of the local markets who has breath that you can smell from about 4 feet away. It's like he stands in an aura of decayed food odor. It's very disgusting.

I read recently that saliva is the key to good breath. If you drink water often enough, you won't have such problems. I'm guessing there are a lot of dry-mouthed Japanese out there!

I did look up the earwax/body odor connection. It was pretty interesting and I had heard before that more Asians have hard earwax compared to western folks. That being said, my husband has soft earwax and no body odor so I guess it's not a 100% correlation (just a statistically relevant one).

Many thanks for your comment! It was interesting, as always.

Kanagawa G said...

I agree with miko.
The morning trains smell of BO and bad breath. The evening trains smell of BO and alcohol. I'm constantly amazed at how many people are lubed up by 6pm.

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

I don't feel comfortable using any of the deoderants over here and always stock up when I go home for a visit.

There are some people with really bad BO, but I must say, I'm really surprised at how little many of the Japanese sweat at the gym! The women delicately pat down their faces while I'm dousing the equipment in my sweat.

My husband is one of the lucky ones that doesn't usually smell. He just uses one of those crystals and he's done for the day.

Shari said...

Hi, Melanie and many thanks for taking the time to comment!

I don't know if Japanese women don't sweat much or if just some women don't. Personally, I hardly sweat at all and it's a huge problem in the summer as my body does no cool itself efficiently. I believe this is why I get sick from heat rather than merely uncomfortable.

I've also been told (by Japanese women) that many Japanese women have low blood pressure and are physically relatively weak. It's possible they just aren't working as hard as you and never reach the "dousing" point. ;-)

Paul said...

No. the reason Japanese and Koreans don't use deodorant is that they have few apocrine glands. apocrine glands (which are abundant in westerners) release fatty acids which are digested by bacteria. it's this process that causes BO. Some japanese are mixed with a little bit of white blood. the genes for the apocrine are in there somewhere... and the odor does come out in some people. but lets be honest. compare what japan smells like, walking down the street, from what paris smells like. you will find a shit load more stinky french folks.

It's not a diet thing. The only diet induced smell that is strong enough to get noticed through the body is anything dealing with the garlic/onion family. that will come out of pores. all other foods emit smell via the mouth...