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Hygiene in the Industrial World:
An Unhealthy Obsession with Cleanliness?

(Released June 2011)

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  by Kathryn Mori & Carolyn Scearce  


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On a commuter train in Tokyo the following scenes are common. A young working woman standing on the train uses an antibacterial wipe to clean off a hand ring before grabbing on to it to help maintain her balance as the train moves. Or a mother uses an antibacterial wipe to scrub her own hands, she then uses a fresh wipe to clean her babies hand before handing the child a cracker. These wipes are nearly commonplace in Japan, many people carry them. They sit on the tables in almost all restaurants for customers to use before they eat. These wipes are sometimes also passed out to mothers at the Children's Social Services Center following a baby's health check.

Like many developed countries, Japan has become preoccupied with cleanliness. Unlike Western countries, however, where the initial developments in sanitation and hygiene were largely motivated in response to industrialization, Japan's relationship with modern hygiene started with a systematic national campaign that began in the Meiji era (1868-1912) before wide-scale industrialization occurred (Lee).

Japanese Meiji Era Charter Oath
Five articles, in the Charter Oath of the Emperor Meiji, published in the Official Journal of the Imperial Government of Japan.

Japan had been extremely resistant to contact with the West until 1853 when the “black ships” arrived under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry. After this event, Japan was forced to sign unequal treaties with Western powers. The Meiji era began in 1868 when power was transferred from the Tokugawa shogunate to the Meiji Emperor. Largely in order to re-establish itself on equal footing with Western nations, the Meiji government carried out extensive reforms beginning in 1868 with the Charter Oath. The fifth article of the oath was: Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world in order to promote the welfare of the empire” (Encyclopædia Britannica). In order to pursue the fifth article, experts were sent to the US and Europe to observe various industries and disciplines and return to Japan and model Japan's own systems off of the best they could find.

One of the areas they studied was health and hygiene. They believed it was critical to improve Japan's “public health” for both civil and military life. They modeled their system off of Germany. An extremely extensive and long-lasting campaign began linking hygiene to nationalism. An outburst of national spirituality was stirred up with hygiene as a practice of moral rectitude and was carried out in the name of the nation. This was probably not difficult considering that Shintoism, the national religion at the time, has many purification rituals stressing cleanliness. Young children were taught the importance of hygiene in their schools, and mothers were told it was their duty to keep the households sanitary. After the Russian-Japanese war from 1904 to 1905, Japan was described by an American writer as, “the first country in the world to recognize that the greatest enemy in war is not the opposing army, but a more treacherous and dangerous—preventable diseases.” In that war, only 3.15% of the sick and injured were the result of infectious diseases, which is a remarkable statistic for that time (Lee).

It is undeniable that in the past 140 years this thrust toward good sanitation and hygiene has improved infant mortality rates and reduced the spread of infectious diseases. However, some speculate that Japan has gone too far. One example is an increasingly popular chain of parks for young children where they sterilize the sand, and mothers are required to spray down the wheels of their strollers with antiseptic soap (Watanabe). Another example is the ATM machines that sterilize and press the bills before they are dispensed (Richards). There is a multibillion dollar industry for antibacterial products. These products range from calculators impregnated with a germ killing agent on its keys, to antibacterial socks, pajamas, stockings and girdles, sinks and toilets, drinking glasses, pens and notebooks, flutes and piano keys, computer keyboards and many more. Toyota even announced three models of cars with antibacterial steering wheels and other internal parts (Efron).

These products are especially popular among young women. An article by Efron mentions a 17-year-old girl who has an antibacterial toothbrush, hair brush, towel, socks and uses antibacterial spray on her shoes, wipes down all of her possessions with antibacterial wipes and feels the need to wash her hands after touching escalator handles or subway rings. She was quoted as saying “I just get the feeling that things are dirty” (Efron). Far from being viewed as obsessive compulsive as such behavior might be seen in the US, this is fairly near the norm.

Pod-shaped pollen counting robots used by Japanese weather forecasting company Weathernews.

One parasitologist, Koichiro Fujita, a professor at Tokyo Medical and Dental University warns that, “These hygiene-obsessed people will be extinct in the next 100 years,” unless something changes. He believes that the almost fanatical pursuit of cleanliness has in fact made the Japanese people more vulnerable to allergies, which lead to dermatitis, asthma and hay fever. He believes that there is a connection between the emergence of these allergic conditions around 1965 and the coinciding elimination of parasites from most of the population (Uranaka). Fujita may himself be considered extreme, considering he purposefully infected himself with tapeworms. Fujita suffered from severe allergies before he infected himself. He claims that the tapeworms not only helped relieve his hay-fever but has helped him reduce his cholesterol and remain slim.

It is unarguably true that there has been a marked increase in the conditions Fujita mentioned, making Japan a country with one of the highest levels of allergy sufferers in the world. It is estimated that 40% of all Japanese people suffer from allergies making it one of the top two among countries surveyed (Warner). Included in that 40% are people who suffer hay fever linked to cedar trees. A recent report showed that pollen allergies in Japan had increased from 19.6% to 29.8% between 1998 and 2009 (Suk). These are only people with fairly prominent symptoms. Even more people complain of mild symptoms such as sore throats, runny noses, or itchy eyes that they attribute to pollen allergies for which they do not seek treatment. Rates of asthma are reported to have increased six fold over the last 30 years. Only 1% of children suffered from asthma in the 1960s while by the 1990s the percentage had increased to 8.2%. Nationwide about 6,000 people die from the disease every year (Medical News Today). Also, around 16% of children suffer from eczema in Japan. Eczema is a skin condition which causes blistering of the skin followed by reddening, swelling, bumps, crusting of the skin, and finally scaling of the skin (Hanifin).

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