Japan obsessed with cleanliness Phobia: In a nation where the word for "beautiful" also means "clean," the populace is exceptionally hygiene-conscious and anything touted as anti-bacterial will sell.

Sun Journal

December 11, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOKYO -- The most fastidious country in the world is becoming even more hygiene-obsessed.

Consider the anti-bacterial calculator, on whose keypad microbes will not multiply. A tsunami-sized wave of consumer interest has created a multibillion-dollar market for such products, which include everything from sheets and towels to watchbands, staplers and ATM cards.

The hyper-clean calculators -- impregnated with a germ-killing agent -- come from Casio, which intended to market them to restaurants and hospitals. But many of the buyers turn out to be "office ladies" who object to their bosses touching their office equipment.

Japan has long placed a cultural premium on cleanliness, a legacy of the ancient Shinto religion's emphasis on ritual purification.

"Before Japanese pray for something very important, they wash the body and dress in a new white kimono," says sociologist Takahiko Furuta of Aomori University in northern Japan.

The Japanese word "kirei" means both "clean" and "beautiful." To be unclean -- or merely slovenly -- is considered a moral transgression.

But over the past decade, young Japanese have become exceptionally hygiene-conscious -- and intolerant of anyone who isn't.

Schoolyard bullies brand their victims "bacteria." Many teen-age girls refuse to allow their clothing to be washed with their fathers', claiming that dear old Dad is dirty.

Stodgy business newspapers report on the swelling ranks of young Lady Macbeths who wash their hands incessantly, are afraid to use their office restrooms and are obsessed with eliminating odors.

"The Tokyo environment has become extremely artificial, and people have begun to view their bodies as artificial," Furuta says.

"This is not an illness; it's a value system shared by an entire generation."

"I just get the feeling that things are dirty," says Rui Konishi, 17, who owns an anti-bacterial toothbrush and socks, hairbrush and towel, uses an anti-bacterial spray to keep her shoes from smelling, wipes her possessions with anti-bacterial wet tissues, and feels the need to wash her hands immediately after touching escalator handles or subway straps.

Germ-killing products "make me feel relieved," she says.

The traditional Japanese equation of cleanliness with godliness has been reinforced by a continuing nationwide food-poisoning epidemic that has killed 12 people and hospitalized hundreds, mostly children poisoned by school lunches.

But the popularity of anti-bacterial products was well established long before the food poisoning scare led to a run on soaps, bleaches and disinfectants. The desire for heightened hygiene seems to span all of Japanese society, but it is particularly marked among young people.

Some date the cleanliness craze to the 1987 launch of a brand of men's dress socks called Commuting Comfort. Woven with an anti-bacterial thread, the socks claim to provide an inhospitable climate for the fungi that cause athlete's foot and for other malodorous microbes.

Smelling feet cause particular social discomfort in a nation where people remove their shoes before entering homes, some restaurants and many other buildings. The socks became an overnight best seller and are a staple of men's sock counters. There are plenty of imitators, including a Calvin Klein brand of anti-bacterial athletic socks.

For the truly germ-ophobic consumer, there are anti-bacterial pajamas, stockings and girdles, pens and notebooks, flutes and piano keys, computer keyboards, drinking glasses, sinks and toilets. Anxious parents can buy their children anti-bacterial toys and treated sand for more sanitary sandboxes.

"If you put the word 'anti-bacterial' on it, you can sell anything," says Tokyo pharmacist Yoshihiro Kagiya.

You can charge more, too.

"In general, 100 yen worth of product" -- about $10 -- "can be made anti-bacterial for 1 yen," by adding various plant-based substances such as cedar, horseradish or green tea, says Kazuhisa Tone, author of an anti-bacterial marketing report for Yamaichi Securities' Economic Research Center.

But the cachet of a "clean" product allows manufacturers to recoup those costs many times over.

Earlier this year, Toyota announced that three popular car models will have anti-bacterial steering wheels and other interior parts. Matsushita introduced what it touts as the world's first anti-bacterial clothes dryer. Hitachi has turned its talents to money-laundering of a literal kind, with an automated teller machine that sterilizes and irons yen notes before dispensing them.

Hitachi did not set out to sanitize the money; its engineers were trying to solve the problem of crumpled bills, which tended to jam machines, a company spokesman says. They solved the problem by running the bills through rollers heated to 392 degrees -- any hotter would singe paper money -- and discovered that the process also killed bacteria.

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