There is no nation on earth that seems to care about its health more than Japan. And the proof is in the pudding: it is a well known fact that the Japanese people enjoy the longest life expectancy among us humans, so they must be doing something right.
Well, before I start, I guess I should say that this post actually two H’s: Health and Hygiene. The two kind of go hand in hand, really, skipping through a meadow of sunflowers. Anyway, moving on…
First things first: Japan is a very clean country. Whether it is clean on an overall macro level is up for debate, but when it comes to individuals, there can be no question as to how clean they are. In school, students are constantly encouraged to wash hands in a meticulous multi-step process and brush their teeth after lunch. Shoes are strictly never worn in houses (and yes, I know a lot of people all over the world do this, but in Japan it is so strictly enforced it might as well be the law).
Toilets are kept immaculate, including public ones (well, almost all public ones), bowing also has the added benefit of not needing to touch someone’s germ-ridden hands, and in general there is an air of keeping yourself clean and trim being as important as keeping yourself well fed. Literally: medicine stores are nearly as common as convenience stores. Clinics too.
Paired up with this is an emphasis on a good diet. Again, it starts in school: kids take an active role in their lunch menus, and their lunch schedules are pinned up on the walls of their classrooms with a detailed breakdown of the calories, fat, etc. Kids also learn to better appreciate vegetables and fruit too: whenever there is spare food available, students can line up to get second helpings. I have often seen the longest lines for extra potato salad and natto (fermented beans).
What’s that, you say? What’s natto? Well, its gained legendary status among the foreign in Japan: when you meet a Japanese person, the first three questions they will ask you are: what’s your name, where are from, and can you can you eat natto? The reason being that natto is a very acquired taste, due to its slimy texture, wiffy stench and a flavour like old shoes. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m not a fan, and neither are a lot of Japanese people, but they eat it still: in a survey, out of the sizeable chunk of people who disliked natto, about a third of them said they still eat it for the health benefits, which allegedly include staving off an all-manner of ailments, good for skin, blood-clotting, and making you look like a badass in front of all those locals who thought a foreigner wouldn’t dare touch the stuff.
And then there are the surgical masks. Contrary to popular belief, the masks you see Japanese people wear have nothing to do with pollution. In most cases they are worn by people with a cold, and are being considerate by trying to keep it to themselves. Yes, you will get the occasional wierdo who you NEVER see the lower half of their face, but they are in the minority. Although, for something as ubiquitous as the masks, their benefits are vastly overrated: they may have some help in holding in germs, as well as stopping you from touching your face then touching someone else’s face if you so happen to be a face-touching party, but they are pretty much useless at stopping you from getting ill. So if anyone tries to hand you a mask when you aren’t sick, feel free to laugh and cough in their face (please don’t do that).
In fact, if there is a downside all this enthusiasm for health on hygiene, Japan can be a bit…over-zealous. I have seen kids use sticky tape on their fingers after eating and looking at disgust as they peel off the grime. Except, that’s not grime, but only skin cells, and that will happen even if you just stepped out of the shower. Certain practices are rigorously followed, like gargling, even though there is no evidence it prevents influenza. Feeling sick? Want to just let your body heal naturally? Good luck: expect everybody else to insist you get to the doctors. And EVERY SINGLE CITIZEN must get a general health check-up once a year, urine samples and blood syringes and all.
But, for the whole, the attention and care paid is, I think, a good thing, and when you see folks well into their 80s bounding around the city as well as anyone half their age, you have to agree that they must be doing something right.