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Cleaning Up on Hygiene Mania

COLUMN ONE

In Japan, where cleanliness has always been esteemed, some people--especially the young--are growing phobic about germs. And marketers are rushing to allay their fears.

November 21, 1996|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

Consider the antibacterial 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 and wigs, staplers, ATM cards and even bacteria-busting rice-cookers.

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 germ-hating young women.

"They are 'office ladies' who say they can't stand it when their middle-aged male bosses touch their things," explained a stationery store clerk.

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," said sociologist Takahiko Furuta of Aomori University in northern Japan.

Even the Japanese word kirei means both "clean" and "beautiful." Thus to be unclean--or merely slovenly--is considered a moral transgression.

But over the last decade, young Japanese have become exceptionally hygiene-conscious--and intolerant of anyone who isn't. Schoolyard bullies brand their victims "bacteria." Many teenage 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 from their meticulously groomed bodies.

"The Tokyo environment has become extremely artificial, and people have begun to view their bodies as artificial," Furuta said. "This is not an illness; it's a value system shared by an entire generation."

"I just get the feeling that things are dirty," said Rui Konishi, 17, who owns an antibacterial toothbrush and socks, hairbrush and towel, uses an antibacterial spray to keep her shoes from smelling, wipes her possessions with antibacterial 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 said.

The traditional Japanese equation of cleanliness with godliness has been reinforced by a recent spate of food poisonings that has killed 12 people and hospitalized hundreds, mostly children poisoned by school lunches.

However, the popularity of antibacterial products was well established long before the food poisoning scare led to a run on soaps, bleaches and disinfectants last summer. The desire for heightened hygiene seems to span all of Japanese society, from housewives to restaurant workers, but it is particularly marked among young people.

Socks Kick Off Craze

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

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

The Japanese consumer is inundated with new products that promise to kill germs, inhibit their growth or banish unpleasant odors from body, home, factory or office. A Yamaichi Securities research report estimates annual sales of about 600 such products at $4.4 billion--and growing fast.

The items range from the mundane--cutting boards and kitchen towels--to the wacky--the $336, pure-silver "Dr. Tongue" tongue-scraper for removing bacteria from the mouth.

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

"If you put the word 'antibacterial' on it, you can sell anything," said Tokyo pharmacist Yoshihiro Kagiya.

You can charge more too. "In general, 100 yen worth of product can be made antibacterial for one yen" with the addition of various types of plant-based substances such as cedar, horseradish or green tea, or inorganic ingredients, mainly zeolites (mineral derivatives), said Kazuhisa Tone, author of the antibacterial marketing report for Yamaichi Securities' Economic Research Center. But the cachet of a "clean" product allows manufacturers to recoup those costs many times over, he said.

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