Technologies of the hygienic self
TOKYO — The more I visit Japan, the more I appreciate the full extent of people’s attention to — and some say obsession with — practices that seem to be all about hygiene.
In the trains and subways, it is not uncommon to see people wearing face masks. In the restrooms, there are pads you can use to cover the toilet bowl so your skin won’t come into contact with the same surface that others have sat on. Sensors allow you to have as minimum contact as possible when you flush the toilet, turn on the tap, get liquid soap and dry your hands.
In houses and even hotel rooms, people are expected to remove their shoes at the entrance. In the bathroom of one of the apartments I stayed at, there is a reminder in five languages: “We would like you to wash your hands and gargle carefully to prevent infectious diseases such as influenza.”
Meanwhile, in fitness centers, people who work out are provided with a small piece of cloth and a spray to clean the machines as soon as they’re done with each of them; they also bring a separate pair of shoes. In convenience stores, one can see shelves of face masks, facial sheets, body paper, thermometers and many other hygiene-related products. I have seen all the above practices around the world — but more ubiquitously and religiously so in Japan.
One explanation for this “hygiene obsession” is a sense of cleanliness that dates back to ancient times—the same ethos, linked to Shinto notions of pollution and purity, that explains the enviable cleanliness of Japanese public spaces. This sense of cleanliness is symbolic as it is substantive: Just as bathers in an onsen are expected to wash thoroughly before dipping into the hot pool, people in society at large are expected to be clean before immersing in the sea of humanity.
Sensorial preferences also inform these practices. In Japan’s famed high-tech toilets, there is a button to create a flushing sound just to drown out the embarrassing bodily noises, underscoring the fact that toilets must not just feel clean in the visual or olfactory, but also in the auditory sense. The lesser or lighter the touch, the better — a preference linked by the cultural historian Constance Classen not just to fears of contagion but to the overall diminution of the value humans place in the tactile sense.
Doubtless, moreover, Japan’s technological power and affluence have allowed the development and marketing of products that cater to — and in turn shape — these preferences. The development of the high-tech toilet, for instance, has led to its normalization and desirability, with an 80-percent preference among Japanese households.
“Like chess, human hygiene is played out with a set of basic options, giving rise to a very wide variety of situations,” writes the historian Virginia Smith. As in the case of Japan, these situations may diverge from the biomedical view of what is healthy. The parasitologist Koichiro Fujita has warned that Japan’s hygiene obsession, through practices like “overwashing,” can eliminate good bacteria, and compromise the natural immunity facilitated by exposure to bad ones.
Yet, as hinted above, the appeal of these practices lies in the fact that they serve different purposes other than hygiene. Face masks may have started as a perceived way of protecting one’s self from infection and allergens, but is now used for a range of reasons: from hiding one’s makeup-free face to avoiding social interactions.
Moreover, the symbolic nature of “cleanliness” may mean that for many Japanese, it is more for the “presentation of one’s self” in the public sphere. Contemporary writers have pointed out that everyone adheres to cleanliness when left to themselves, just like Toru in “Norwegian Wood” who makes fun of his “cleanliness freak” of a roommate — and Sumire in “Sputnik Sweetheart” who confesses that her room is “a mess.”
Surely, much has changed since those Haruki Murakami novels were first published in 1987 and 2001. Surely, too, my observations today will no longer be valid in the future. As I continue my travels, I wonder: How will the hygienic practices in Japan — and the rest of the world — look like in the years and decades to come?