My wife, two young daughters, and I just recently spent a month in my wife’s native Japan. You’ll hardly find a society with a greater reverence for cleanliness and the Earth. I was reminded this during the jet-lagged stupor of the first 48 hours.
In preparing for the visit with her parents, my wife had some concerns. We departed some time after the initial, scarier swine flu scare. She made it her mission to investigate the illness and diligently insured we were not that American family who infected the islands. What was the Japan-US travel status? Any restrictions? She kept a daily count of the number of H1N1 cases in the US and in Japan, and surfed the CDC, State Department, and Japanese authorities’ Web sites. She special ordered those white surgical masks to cover our faces on the Detroit-Tokyo leg. She contended for President Obama’s H1N1 Czar position.
Her fellow Japanese have the same high-level concerns for disease and infection. Upon landing, an inspector boarded the plane wearing an air-tight radiation suit and wielding what looked like a flamethrower. After a three-hour bus ride we had finally made it to her parents. As we stepped off the coach, my mother-in-law didn’t join me in a hug, but instead, bobbed and weaved dodging my grasp and sprayed my palms and forearms with a strong disinfectant meant to kill any trans-Pacific bacteria.
I was noticeably taken aback. Mika covered for her and said immediately in English, “That’s certainly a good idea.” I took the hint and thanked Oba-Chan (grandma). Our three-year-old daughter, after such a long, tiring journey, wasn’t so accepting. Oba-Chan grabbed her hands and repeated the precaution. The poor little girl was even less prepared for decontamination. Hanging on my hip, she erupted in scream after Grandma doused her. She clutched me tightly, and I felt the cold, foamy solution leave her palms and penetrate the back of my shirt. Welcome to Japan!
I shouldn’t be too surprised by this contemporary concern for a possible pandemic. Indeed, the Japanese take precaution against germs and dirt in everyday life. The very next day, we went to the on-sen (hot springs baths), an indoor, co-ed, pool. I knew better than to wear my shoes beyond the lobby. In nicer shops, some restaurants, and even in locker rooms, the Japanese take their shoes off, just like in their homes. Before temporarily separating from the girls to change in the lockers, my wife gave me some needed translation and guidance.
I was headed right past the shoe-lockers, small cubbies at the locker room entrance that require 100 yen (about $1) and hardly large enough for my size twelve shoes. I had taken my shoes off, but decided I’d just put my shoes in the general locker (500 Yen) with all my other stuff. Mika stopped me quickly, telling me to leave my shoes in the shoe-only lockers. “Why?” I ask. The next guy using the big locker doesn’t want the dirt from the bottom of your shoes to get on his clothes.
After frolicking in the pool, we go to take baths. A bath in Japan is quite a prescribed ritual both in the home and at public baths. It’s a two-stage process: clean yourself while sitting on a stool, in what is essentially a sitting shower, then soak while naked in a hot tub where everyone shares the same bathwater. During stage one, squatted on the stool, I noticed two bottles, one shampoo and one body soap. Knowing minimal Japanese, I looked to the guy washing up next to me and said, siamusen (excuse me), and pointed at the bottle in question, then immediately at my hair, offering him a rather punctuated facial expression. He sharply nodded, declaring I had picked the correct bottle for the hair. Therefore, the other one must be the soap. After shampooing, I lathered my body with what I thought was the liquid soap. As I finished, I noticed a unique, silky feeling all over my skin. Then I spotted a small sliver of bar soap that remained in a nearby tray. Turns out I had just washed up entirely with hair conditioner.
As I headed from the shower area to the hot tub, I was struck by an ironic exception to public cleanliness. What about the stool I just sat on? Why do the same people who wouldn’t want shoe dust to touch their clothes stored in a locker—clothes that are likely headed for the laundry basket hours later—willingly accept sitting bitt-naked on a stool that some other guy just occupied? I didn’t think too much about it, I guess as long as you clean your back side last, you’re OK.
The next day we went to an indoor pool in what resembled a nice American YMCA or health club. After going through another, two-locker ritual, I exited the men’s room to reunite with the girls before swimming. The path from lockers to poolside forces one to walk through a perpetual shower so to insure all swimmers take that required pre-swim bath. As I sat waiting for the girls, a young lifeguard approached me and in a highly concerned, yet polite, tone began to explain something. Turns out, they require a swim cap so no human hair will pollute the pool. I was the only white guy in the place, and the only person without a swim cap. My wife then escorted me to a counter where I purchased the largest, most masculine swim cap available. Slim pickings. When I returned to the water I could tell I was viewed as the outcast, the foreign devil. I was the American equivalent of that overweight, overly-oiled middle-aged lady at the country club before her hourly dip in the pool.
No sooner than we honored the hair policy, the same guy suddenly gawks down at our wedding bands. No appreciation for our marriage. He pointed into the air and declared, “Eureka!” (in Japanese). He darted behind the counter and returned with two band-aids absent that middle, padded section. We both stuck out our ring fingers as he meticulously covered the rings. He then clicked his heels, stood at attention, and barked “Hei!” (yes) and bowed in a rather slow, methodical manner. We could now enter the pool.
The hot and cold of the pools surely cured my jet-lag, and cleaned me up a bit. We continued to have a good time with my wife’s family. And we didn’t leave any hair or minerals in any pools, didn’t spread dirt in public lockers, and as far as I can tell didn’t transmit any H1N1.