Shincho 45 (May) assembles a special issue of eight articles under the combined title, "Allergic Japan." Tokyo Medical and Dental University professor emeritus Koichiro Fujita leads off with a warning against people's growing propensity toward "keppeki-sho," translated variously as fastidiousness, fussiness over cleanliness or phobia of dirt.
"In the beginning," he writes, "living things were dirty and stank. Now there are even pills people can take to reduce their body odor." This obsession with "germ removal" and "disinfection" is driving out "good" bacteria that is always present on the body.
Fujita's conclusions come from direct observation: He spent a good number of years over the past five decades on visits to rural Indonesia, where public sanitation practices were close to nonexistent. Yet, he says, children in Kalimantan (Borneo) grow up free from such common maladies in Japan as atopic dermatitis, asthma and pollen allergies.
How can this be? While the outspoken Fujita's research has been published widely in foreign medical and scientific journals, he is regarded as a "kawari-mono" (oddball) in Japan.
The biggest changes, he says, date back to the postwar period, when U.S. occupation troops here frequently came down with parasites from eating raw vegetables. At that time, some 60% of Japan's population were found to harbor some type of parasite. By 1960, the figure had declined to 20% by 1965 less than 5%. Today it is believed to be below 0.2%.
Yet for their entire existence on the planet human beings have been surrounded by germs. Only within the past 20 years have humans begun to become so obsessive in their determination to eliminate germs from their environment.
Around the time of the "bubble economy" of the early 1990s, this creeping mysophobia became increasingly extreme, spawning such phenomena as people who found that sitting on the same taxi seat as the previous passenger was so repellent, they would first spread a disposable sheet before planting their own rump. Others would wear gloves to avoid touching a strap handle on a train. Some parents even demanded schools to revert to Japanese-style commodes because they don't want their children's backsides making contact "where someone else has been."
These practices have been contributing to the decline in people's natural immunity. And the most extreme example of all is to be found in bidet-type toilets.
"I suppose using them for washing once or twice a day is alright," Fujita writes, "but excessive washing kills the good bacteria present around the rectum, leaving it open to infections."
And once this occurs, use of toilet paper causes discomfort, making people even more dependent on warm-water wash, and creating a vicious circle.
For women, use of bidet-toilets may also kill beneficial bacteria in the vagina, leaving it more susceptible to infections. Fujita cites joint research by two obstetric hospitals that suspect 50 to 60% of premature births or miscarriages may have been due to infections brought on by overwashing.
Fujita notes that the volume of bacteria present in Japanese intestines has declined to only one third that of prewar levels. The volume of the stools they produce is also just one-half to one-third that of prewar times.
He cites three reasons for this: one is major changes in postwar dietary intake; second is the effect of free radicals (aka reactive oxygen) due to modern lifestyles; and third is stress.
The way to boost the numbers of bacteria present in the intestine and thereby raise one's resistance to infections is through greater consumption of dietary fiber. One should avoid stress. And to reduce the impact of free radicals, one should chew one's food well -- at least 30 seconds for each mouthful. When resting, he adds, it's important that people be "in contact with nature" to the greatest extent possible.
"If this overly fastidious society goes overboard, even though things appear clean on the surface, I think an internally dirty world will result," he writes. "A society where germs are all around us is not a dangerous one. Most of the germs around us have not changed for 10,000 years or more, and to there's no need for us to overreact to what is only 'slight badness.'"
"I don't expect that the Japanese are a race of fools," concludes Fujita. "Rather than letting themselves be made to dance to the tunes of the marketers of 'hygienic' and 'fastidious,' they need to dispassionately consider what being clean really is."© Japan Today