Upon arriving in Japan, many people from overseas are impressed by how nicely dressed and well-groomed, on average, the local population is. However, in a survey conducted by Japanese women’s interest magazine Shukan Josei Prime, many foreigners living in Japan expressed dismay at bad breath they’ve encountered in the country.
Shukan Josei Prime collected responses from 100 survey participants, and when asked “Have you ever been disappointed by a Japanese person’s breath?” 72 percent answered “Yes.” 72 percent also said they want Japanese people to “be thorough regarding oral hygiene and care,” and the identical numbers make sense, since once you find someone’s breath bad enough that you feel full-on disappointment, you’re probably past being able to shrug the odor off as a “you do you” sort of thing. One respondent reportedly went so far as to say “I love Japanese people, but their breath is terrible. Honestly, there’s no country with worse breath.”
So what’s the cause of this disappointingly dismal breath quality? Shukan Josei Prime spoke with dentist Maki Morishita, a representative for the Japan Dental Research Institute, who hypothesized there might be some cultural characteristics that make Japanese people more susceptible to inadvertently bad breath. “Japanese people tend to maintain more personal space than people in the West,” says Morishita, referring to how hugs, handshakes, high-fives, and public kissing are all comparatively rare in Japan. “Japanese people are also conscious about not opening their mouths very wide when they laugh, because they think it’s impolite. So there’s less pressure to take care of your breath, and so attitudes about oral hygiene can become lax.”
▼ Morishita, showing off her smile
Morishita also says that she often encounters patients who mistakenly believe that they can thoroughly clean their teeth with only a regular toothbrush and toothpaste, overlooking the importance of regular use of floss or interdental brushes and mouthwash.
Though neither Shukan Josei Prime nor Morishita brings them up, there are two other factors that need to be mentioned when discussing breath in Japan: the amount of smoking and drinking that goes on in the country. With social stigmas regarding both activities much lower in Japan than in many other places, if you spend enough time talking with people in Japan you’re eventually going to find yourself in a conversation with someone who’s smoking like a chimney or drinking like a fish, or quite possibly both, and neither one of those is a pleasant aroma to have blown into your nostrils via their breath. And while Shukan Josei Prime didn’t provide any demographic details on the respondents other than that they were foreigners living in Japan, the expat community tends to skew young, and younger people tend to spend a proportionally larger amount of time socializing at bars, pubs, and parties where, in Japan, there’s usually a lot of smoking and drinking going on.
▼ From first-hand experience, I know, with 100-percent certainty, what this dude’s breath is going to smell like when he elatedly exhales after swallowing that mouthful of Asahi Super Dry.
Last, it’s worth remembering how the question put to the participants was phrased: “Have you ever been disappointed by a Japanese person’s breath?” I’d definitely answer that question with “Yes,” but I’d have the same answer if you changed that to “Have you ever been disappointed by an American person’s breath?” Really, it’d be pretty hard to find a country to live in where nobody has bad breath, and taken another way, 28 percent of the surveyed foreigners apparently never having run into unpleasant breath in Japan is pretty impressive.
So while Japanese society may indeed have unique circumstances that contribute to bad breath, and that bad breath may have its own unique bouquet, the survey’s question is kind of a loaded one. That said, just about every convenience store in Japan has a shelf of breath mints near the check-out counter, and if more people would make use of them the survey respondents would rest, and breathe, a lot easier.
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