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It Stinks: The Smell of Aging

COLUMN ONE

Japanese researcher's discovery that older men emit a pungent body odor hit a nerve with the populace. Now companies have jumped in with products to mask the offending scent.

July 14, 1999|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Do middle-aged men smell worse than everyone else?

Shoji Nakamura, chief perfumer with Japan's exclusive cosmetics firm, Shiseido, certainly thinks so. And he's out to change that.

Nakamura, whose million-dollar nose is reputedly able to distinguish among some 2,000 different odors, says he first noticed a distinctive smell among middle-aged and older men in 1987 and spent the next decade thinking about it.

"I'm very interested in body odor," he says.

Now, after painstaking research, Shiseido has acted on Nakamura's evident insight. This September, the company will unveil what it says is the world's first product line of shampoos, powders and air fresheners designed to block, cover and otherwise obscure the unique smell of growing old.

His latest olfactory innovation has apparently struck a powerful chord with the cleanliness-conscious Japanese--if all the media hoopla is any indication--as newspapers, magazines and TV programs here proclaim the merits of his revolutionary discovery.

For researchers at Shiseido, the largest cosmetic maker in Japan and the fourth-largest globally, the bottom line is that people over 40, particularly men, produce much more of an unsaturated aldehyde called nonenal than the rest of society. That, the company says, is the crux of the problem.

Nonenal is described as a key ingredient in traditional body odor, but Shiseido says it generates a more distinctive, diffuse smell in older men and is not limited to places like the underarm, where traditional deodorants are effective.

At Shiseido's research lab in Yokohama, three men and a woman in white coats carefully handle two small glass jars of what they say is concentrated elderly smell before sliding them across a table to give a visitor a whiff. Along with the unique opportunity comes a warning not to get too close.

The smell emanating from the little bottles is musty and does in fact evoke some vague childhood memory of an elderly neighbor couple's house. Marketing wizard Shiseido, which began as a modest Tokyo drugstore, didn't build up $5.2 billion in annual sales by allowing its vital discoveries to remain vague childhood impressions, however.

In language worthy of a wine connoisseur on a tear, Shiseido goes on to describe its newly isolated old-age smell as an "unpleasant and greasy odor with a grassy nuance."

Segments of the Japanese public are chiming in with a cacophony of criticisms of the body odor of ojisan--a Japanese term that literally means "uncle" but carries an unpleasant connotation of an older man out of style, socially inept and, now, smelly.

The magazine Weekly Bunshun in a recent issue highlights several twentysomething women complaining about their older male relatives and co-workers under the headline: "Ojisan's smell will be gone! Could this be true?"

Asked to describe the ojisan smell, the young women liken it to fertilizer, dead leaves, "squished aphids" and "a cheap, sleazy hotel."

Gunze Co., a clothing company that has capitalized on this strongly held sentiment with a new line of "Deogreen" underwear designed to inhibit microorganisms blamed for the dreaded middle-age smell, recently surveyed 278 young women aged 16 to 25 on the distasteful topic of "men's perspiration and body odor."

Gunze found that 92% believe "something must be done about this problem," while 65% said they find the smell of their boss particularly offensive.

Yukiko Matsushita, a 23-year-old receptionist at a dental office in downtown Tokyo, is quick to agree. "My boss, my father, there are so many smelly men around me," she says. "I think middle-aged men are a lot stinkier than other generations."

For Akiko Seizaki, a 26-year-old sales clerk who works at a book publisher, the biggest concern is crowded trains. "It only takes one ojisan with a strong stench to smell up the whole car," she says. "If I'm standing close to someone like that, I feel like throwing up."

A television commercial for Gunze's no-smell underwear taps into this overarching, underarming anxiety. In the 30-second spot, a young woman listens to a Walkman on a crowded commuter train, her face jostled at the armpit level of several older men. Eventually the smell gets so bad she screams, tears her headphones off and jams the two ear pieces into her nostrils.

Unpleasant odors are processed by the left side of the brain, which sends an urgent signal to escape from the odor, according to the Japanese book "Nose and Human Relations." Talk about a testament to the brain: Humans can detect some 100,000 smells, the book says.

For his part, Tetsuya Ishizaki, a 52-year-old local government official, believes all the social railing against ojisan is unfair. "I don't understand why middle-aged men get so much criticism," he says. "I get offended when young girls on the train wear too much perfume, but I don't complain."

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