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Sunday, May 30, 1999 Published at 19:32 GMT 20:32 UK

Japan's war on germs and smells

The summer is a boom time for deodorant manufacturers

By Juliet Hindell

It is a common misconception among foreigners who come to Japan that the people wearing white cotton face masks on the streets are sheltering from pollution. In fact, they are usually performing a public service by trying to keep their cold germs to themselves.

Face masks are one of the most visible examples of the Japanese obsession with battling baikin or germs which, as the mercury rises at this time of year, goes into overdrive.

It has been the hottest May on record in Japan and with the heat comes a national fear of smells and infection bordering on the obsessive.

A breeding ground for germs

[ image: The dreaded bacteria, such as E.coli, emerge in the summer]
The dreaded bacteria, such as E.coli, emerge in the summer
I was reminded of this the other day in the ladies. The woman next to me poured water over the taps after washing her hands.

This is not unusual. She was cleansing the taps of the touch of her hands which were technically speaking dirty when she started washing. Of course the quick splash is hardly likely to disinfect the taps but the gesture is meant to demonstrate her consideration for the next user.

Summer brings back the dreaded baikin with a vengeance. Japan is not only hot in summer it is very humid, the perfect breeding ground for bacteria real or imagined.

There are real reasons to be afraid. Japan has seen huge outbreaks of E. coli a vicious bacteria which causes fatal food poisoning.

A notorious case in which a woman poisoned a curry at a summer festival, killing four and sickening 60 others has also made the Japanese wary of the safety of everything they touch and eat.

Disinfectants, bleaches, extra strong detergents are all best sellers in summer.

Germ-free money

[ image: A new meaning to money laundering]
A new meaning to money laundering
Just in case, banks provide germ-killing cash machines all year round - they are made of plastic indelibly impregnated with disinfectant chemicals.

One bank even sanitises the banknotes by heating them. Crisp clean notes spew out of its machines to its hygiene-conscious customers. It brings a whole new meaning to money laundering.

There are also pencils, pens, stationery, bicycle handlebars, musical instruments and karaoke microphones all made of anti-bacterial plastic.

These products and services particularly appeal to young women who are leaders of fastidious fashions. They say they do not want to touch things handled by middle-aged men. That is why you see women strap-hanging on trains using a handkerchief to protect their hands from the residual sweat of the previous passenger.

Fighting body odour

[ image: Women shy away from anything handled by middle-aged men]
Women shy away from anything handled by middle-aged men
Young Japanese women are not only afraid of germs. They are waging a war on offensive body odours too. Offending your friends and colleagues with your own aroma would be the height of rudeness.

But don't worry. There are thousands of ways to make sure no one will be able to sniff your presence.

There is the usual deodorant of course, but there are also disposable underarm towels in handy hand bag sized packages to soak up unsightly perspiration.

And for really serious cases there is underwear impregnated with chemicals that will deodorise your sweat for 24 hours.

The 100% cotton vests, briefs and boxer shorts can be washed 100 times and still be effective. Most of the underwear is aimed at middle-aged men, those same creatures that young women find so unhygienic.

Breath fresheners are also big in Japan. No one these days would be caught dead without a tiny box of fresh minty lozenges.

My favourite type are peach-flavoured papers that melt in your mouth. They are aimed at young women with olfactory overdrive and in design they resemble the oil-absorbing papers that all self-respecting office ladies carry to keep their noses from shining in the heat.

Garlic for lunch no problem. There's a special tea sold in cans which will kill the lingering odour.

You can even buy non-smelling garlic, allegedly it tastes the same but your breath is as sweet as a rose afterwards.

Deodorising pills

But some ultra-smell sensitive people are going one step further. They are taking pills that work internally to deodorise all the bodily functions.

Wave goodbye to halitosis, BO and bathroom smells just by popping a simple pill. Made from six substances extracted from mushrooms, the leading brand is hugely profitable. Eating the mushrooms themselves sadly does not work.

But in what may be a real service to the planet, there is a version to give to household pets as well.

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