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Sniff... sniff... does Japan have a problem with odors?

32 Comments

On Nov 22, a web site called "By Them" -- a name coined to be politically correct by avoiding masculine or feminine pronouns -- posted an article titled "Why is Japan stinky?" which broached the subject of odors, and the Japanese perception thereof. 

The author may have been inspired in part by Risa Kirimura's book, published in 2018 by Kobunsha. Its English title: "Why Japanese People Are Known to Smell; The Science of Body Odor and Bad Breath."  

It should come as no surprise but thanks to its high population density, Japan is full of places that are jam-packed with human bodies. Contrast it with Los Angeles, where the author of this article currently lives. LA has fewer congested places, except perhaps at sports clubs on weekends or shopping centers. 

While residing in the U.S. and viewing news about places in Japan with a high density of human bodies, the writer was occasionally led to ponder, "I wonder what that would smell like." 

Clearly, awareness toward odors in Japan and the U.S. differ considerably. 

"Some Japanese think that since people in the U.S. consume a lot of meat, they have strong body odor but I don't have that impression," she writes. "That's because they are also highly aware of deodorizers. Also, most people habitually take a shower after they get up in the morning." 

Americans are also conscientious about their oral hygiene. 

The writer had been married to an American and he rigorously instructed her in the various American practices of personal hygiene, even for toddlers. 

Thinking back some three decades ago, a practice called asa-shan (morning shampoo) became widely popularized in Japan. And now? Well there may be those who take a quick shower before leaving for work, but morning shampoos appear to be a thing of the past. The times have clearly changed. 

When the writer returns to Japan, she becomes conscious of various smells, in taxis, elevators, commuter trains and other congested places where people come into contact. Compared with foreign countries, the smell of their scalps, the admixture of deodorizers in oshiire (closets), incense, cigarettes, and so on seem more pronounced. 

"It may have been said that Japanese are 'a race of people who are sensitive to smells,' but I get the feeling they are rather insensitive to body odors, such as those brought on by aging," she writes. "This strikes me as strange, but that's the way things are." 

She recalled attending a baseball night game some years ago. "Afterwards I boarded a late-night commuter train. It was jam-packed, and most passengers were either wearing happi coats with the team's logo on it or had hand towels around their necks. As they were pushed against me on the moving train, the odor was so strong I felt like gagging." 

In a survey conducted by Men's Rize, a cosmetic clinic for men, some 90% of the female respondents cited "aboard a train" as the place where they had been bothered by the odor of perspiration. 

Female respondents to the same survey replied that when evaluating a possible romantic partner, over 90% gave priority to "body scent" over "appearance." 

In other words, a handsome gent can find himself eliminated from consideration if he doesn't extrude pleasant pheromones. 

"While in Japan on a business trip, I stayed in various hotels," the writer continued. "My impression was that older, traditional establishments did not give any consideration to the smell in their guest rooms.

"Yes, it was nice to have clean, starched sheets and pillowcases. But now people are less conscious of the use of starch. There have been cases where I found the odor from starch and bleach to be overwhelming, to the degree that I had to request a change to another room. I've never encountered this in U.S. hotels."  

Next year many foreigners will be visiting Japan for the Olympics, and the writer suggests her compatriots take the opportunity to extend omotenashi to their physiques by improving their "deodorant care." When time doesn't permit a thorough cleansing in the bath or shower, the next best strategy is to make use of packets of deodorant sheets, disposable wipes chemically treated to remove the skin oils that combine with bacteria to generate unpleasant smells. 

But don't scrub, she cautions. Apply them gently so as not to irritate the skin.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

32 Comments
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Funny that, I haven't noticed BO much since I got here (seven-years-a-gaijin now) and I've massively reduced my own by eating a fairly traditional Japanese diet. I have noticed some young, male tourists can smell a bit cheesy even walking past them on the street though!

It must be the changing Japanese diet with more meat and dairy and less fermented, probiotic foods. People's breath tends to be the worst, like rotten coffee...

0 ( +5 / -5 )

My worst is breath smell, and people here consume a lot of garlic too.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

I can't say I've come across much noticeably bad BO here but boy is there some killer bad breath around.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

BO? Nah. Not much at all, at least.

BB!? Oooh boy! Some could use that as a lethal weapon.

This is a worldwide thing, I see that lots of people don't seem to be too fond of brushing teeth.

I mean, I'm not one to talk, being obsessed with being fresh and clean and smelling like heaven 24/7.

But still, it feels so good after brushing your teeth. Got that sparkly clean mouth ya feel me.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I do notice from time to time that taxis (most certainly the driver) do smell bad, probably at the end of their long shift.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

to speak, if you couldn't see gheir faces, you'd probably swear you were talking to an ogre or something. They don't use mints and almost always have terrible breath. Guys on the train are the worst. Even on a Monday morning, they have incredibly bad BO.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I have a very sensitive smell but I haven't noticed that generally smell bad. The odd person but that in itself is not usual. The Japanese bath more frequently than the British or the French.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

In the summer, with all of the sweating, maybe I notice a touch more body odor. But, I find it more prominent from foreigners from countries where daily bathing/showering is not a tradition, as it is in Japan, the US, and some other countries.

But, by far, the most obvious and annoying smell in Japan is tobacco smoke, either actual smoke in the air in restaurants with poorly isolated smoking sections or when walking past a pachinko parlor when the doors slide open, or the lingering after-smell embedded in people's clothing, furnishings, or automobiles.

But, on the whole, the daily/nightly bathing and ubiquitous use of air cleaners from Sharp, Panasonic, Daikin, etc have kept Japan relatively odor-free to my nose. OTOH, I love the awesome aromas emanating from the bazillion restaurants.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

They didn't use deodorant?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think the blogger quoted here doesn't actually sound like a very nice person. Her comments about the baseball fans on the train are disrespectful to both their appearance and their supposed smell. She also seems rather keen on telling the reader "when I was in America" as if that gives her some kind of special power or insight.

Calling other kids smelly "kusai" will be a very common form of bullying in Japanese schools. Body odour is a known medical condition and some people do smell, but that does not mean we should automatically sympathize with people claiming others are smelly.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Zichi, I think you must have left Britain a long time ago. When I was growing up your comment might have had some truth for some people but these days most people shower each morning. Times have changed, haven’t seen a tin bath in front the fire for ooh months!

Given the Japanese reputation for neatness and cleanliness I am surprised that personal hygiene is not as rigid?

0 ( +2 / -2 )

By far the worst offenders are older gents who exude a scent called kareishū (加齢臭). Oooohhh...it's nasty. Don't know how the wife stands it!

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Yes, Japan does. From smokers. What a stench on their clothes and from their very pores. As for "kareishuu", that's a no-brainer as well.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

I recently lived in japan (6 years) and in general the stink that i smelled was less BO and more cigarettes and alcohol breath...omg the stink of cigarette smoke was EVERYWHERE. Please Japan come into the 21st century and fix the cigarette problem.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

The US is not the nice smelling, hygienic paradise the writer pretends it to be. No country is stink free

If Japan sold anti-perspirants or deodorants that work, it would help. Ditto ditching the cigs, coffee and, more importantly, drinking enough fluids throughout the day then the ubiquitous stinky breath problem would be reduced.

Opening windows and shutters to air a room, rather than use horrible air fresheners is cheaper, more environmentally friendly and healthier as well as being less offensive to the nose.

Why does the laundry liquid have an artificial floral smell, ditto the fabric conditioners? Why would I want my clothes to stink like that, I just want them to be, and smell, clean.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

I never noticed bad odor from anyone I know when I visit. Of course there will be random people with bad hygiene as there is anywhere, but I run into more stinky people here in the US than I ever have in Japan.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I thought this article was going to be about food smells, osembe on trains and so on. Of course, cigarette smell is particularly noticeable in Japan, but things are getting much better. The Japanese are starting to realise that the smell will travel from one table to the next if there is no divider.

In this country perfume is not used by most women, and excessive use is indeed rare. People do not stink of perfume.

However, the weather is summer does make people sweat a lot, and the resulting BO gets recirculated in air-conditioned spaces with all windows closed. Japanese claim they do not smell because they bathe once a day. People from South East Asia would say that they smell because they bathe only once a day.

Different people find different smells offensive. Which stinks and which smells good when being fried, bacon, fish, doughnuts? It is a case of associations.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

As far as BO, I haven't noticed Japanese people really having this problem unless it's like a sweltering summer day.

But the bad breath thing... yeah, huge problem. I don't understand why oral hygiene is such a problem here. Also, there are tons of older people with straight up rotting, brown teeth and foul breath walking around... do they have no one in their life to tell them it's a problem? My MIL has some severe dental problems, she goes to the dentist every Friday and has since I've lived here (almost a decade). She can hardly close her mouth because a few of her teeth stick almost straight out horizontally. A few of them dark brown. Apparently it causes her serious discomfort, and her breath is chronically bad. Like very very bad. I'm not sure why no one has ever offered her dentures or implants or anything, they're fairly well off. If you KNOW you have bad breath, and the majority of your teeth are incredibly misaligned, brown, and rotting from the inside causing you immense pain... would you not WANT them to just take them all out? Yeah the recovery is a bitch but it must be better than to spend the rest of your LIFE in pain until your teeth fall out on their own?

My own mother (when I was a kid) got hit in the jaw by a foul ball at my little brother's baseball game... it turned into an infection that spread all throughout her jaw and she had to have all of her teeth removed. It was devastating for her for a month or two and yeah it was really painful but if you asked her today she would tell you it's the best thing that ever happened to her because now she has implants that never give her any problems at all, and look very nice.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I think the blogger quoted here doesn't actually sound like a very nice person. 

Another case of attacking the messenger? Considering the hysterical rants that flood cyberspace, I found her comments honest, and civilized. Certainly not intentionally offensive. Just because you don't agree with them doesn't make her a "not very nice person."

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

All the blokes I know in England shower in the morning and evening. People don't seem to bath much though.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

kohakuebisuNov. 25 03:55 pm JST

I think the blogger quoted here doesn't actually sound like a very nice person. Her comments about the baseball fans on the train are disrespectful to both their appearance and their supposed smell. She also seems rather keen on telling the reader "when I was in America" as if that gives her some kind of special power or insight.

Totally agree.

Also, "natural body odor" and "sweaty body odor" are different things. No human being can ever have a good smell when they sweat and all a "morning shower" can do is just temporarily suppress a bad natural body odor, as it's heavily related to a person's diet.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I smell BO in Japan from blue collar workers which is normal after a hard day in warm weather; kids playing outside all day; people's breathe from natto, cigarettes, and alcohol in no particular order; and from some homeless people which is also not surprising. (Lots of bad oral hygiene!)

This can be experienced anywhere. The problem that the mesenger has is probably with the scent. The offensive smells are probably different from the offensive smells that they are use to. Thus, they stand out more and way more noticeable by the messenger.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It wouldn't surprise me if the writer also complained about Japanese food (American food being naturally better, of course), complained about the Japanese driving on the left, etc... just comes across as another superior Yank.

As far as the smell... ciggie smoke in izakaya prevents me having lunch or dinner there, and heavy smokers also exude a particular smell from their pores - but that's true of smokers everywhere, not limited to Japan. Bad breath... yeah, but again not just limited to Japan.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Why is everyone assuming bad breath is the result of poor oral hygiene? Many causes of halitosis comes from the stomach and dehydration, and considering the diet, poor fluid intake, constipation and gastric problems that are common here I'm not surprised many have terrible mouth odours.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Why is everyone assuming bad breath is the result of poor oral hygiene? 

Because oral hygiene in Japan is not good.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

If Japan sold anti-perspirants or deodorants that work, it would help. Ditto ditching the cigs, coffee

Coffee does stink. My boss drinks this foul liquid and his breath is rank.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Japan and US mentioned .... um, I can think of a lot stinkier places to be, and have been there too.

Part of life though, for instance, chewing gum after 焼肉 anyone?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

"Bottom burps" are a concern. ..

Dropping them in public transport can be quite troublesom for some passengers .

The old "ring stinger" can come in handy when wanting to clear a packed elevator.

Its better to give than receive, so dont feel bad if someone leaves a "floter" in a taxi next time yar jump in one.

Big line up at the supermarket checkout ? No problems,

Dont feel shy to let a "trouser trumpet" loose to shorten the que.

Dont like little children at family gatherings ?

Remember, their noses are quite often level with the site of distarge if standing near them.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

The problem that the writer, nor any of the comments so far have failed to address is the difference in perfume quantities between Japan and the US

In Japan, heavy perfume is looked down on, and hence you hardly smell it, other than when they are on a date or something. Same with laundry, they do not like the heavily scented detergents, so you hardly smell that on freshly washed clothes. We have received hand-me-down baby clothes from friends overseas that are so strongly infused with laundry detergent/dryer sheets that it takes up to 5 washes to get them wearable!

With the abscence of those overpowering smells, suddenly you start noticing the more subtle smells, a bit of scalp sweat, or BO smell etc. That doesnt mean Japanese smell worse, its that you just cant smell that over the cologne and deoderant and laundry detergent you are bombarded with in the US.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It has got better, back in my Eikawa days I had to teach many a salaryman with the worst halitosis, I’d often wonder how their wives coped. I’d put it down to dental issues or smoking or drinking before our lesson.

Things have changed, now it seems to be young guys wearing too much body spray/deodorant so that it’s all you can smell when they’re in the same area. Japanese ladies though, generally smell beautiful!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Love Japan but come on. I've gotten on trains that absolutely reek. The smell seems to be from older guys that went out drinking. it's a weird yeasty stench. I carry a mask every where I go just in case. Shogunai I suppose.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I myself have not smelled any foul smells there from the physical. There is only one smelly person, the person who wrote this trash.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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