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Japan takes hand washing to new level

In Japan, every day is hand-scrubbing, mask-wearing day. But the nation got into the spirit of Global Hand Washing Day anyway with a special dance, DVDs, posters and pamphlets.

October 16, 2009|Catherine Makino

TOKYO — There was a special dance created by a well-known choreographer, as well as DVDs, special posters and pamphlets. Masks and a "cough etiquette" campaign are already ubiquitous. As is lots and lots of soap.

Thursday was proclaimed the second annual Global Hand Washing Day, and the U.N. agency that promotes child welfare sought to deliver the message that this simple measure is the most effective way to prevent many deadly diseases, including H1N1 influenza, commonly known as swine flu. Every year, 8.8 million children younger than 5 die of preventable illnesses worldwide.

Making that point in Japan, in the words of one expert, is like shipping coal to Newcastle.

The United Nations says more than 80 countries held events to promote the importance of hand washing. None probably needed the reminder less than Japan, where every day is hand-scrubbing, mask-wearing day. But many Japanese got into the spirit anyway.

Well-known choreographer Kaiji Moriyama composed a hand-washing dance especially for the day and performed it in an oversized sky-blue shirt adorned with white droplets, presumably of soapy water. Hiro Masa of Japan's U.N. Children's Fund committee said Moriyama went to a kindergarten and performed the dance with children.

"We posted the hand-washing dance movie on our Web, YouTube, handed out DVDs, posters and pamphlets to schools, kindergartens and people across the country," Masa said.

"Many children in the world do not have access to safe water or the habit or means to wash their hands properly," he said. "We want to tell the Japanese public, and in particular children, about the situation."

With the current flu concerns, cleanliness has become an even more serious issue here.

The H1N1 virus is spreading in Japan, and many schools have closed. There were at least 240,000 cases in the country from Sept. 22 to Sept. 27, according to the Infectious Disease Surveillance Center.

Hiroshi Shoji, an English-language instructor in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo, said children usually wash their hands and gargle in the winter, but now it is many times a day -- and after every activity.

"Students in this area must wash their hands, gargle and spray hands with alcohol upon entering school," he said. "Any time of the day, students are free to gargle, wash their hands and spray their hands with alcohol. They are allowed to wear masks if they want to."

Yushi Yamada, a Tokyo fourth-grader, is learning the Japanese way early in life. He said he washes his hands four times a day, excluding the times after using the toilet.

"I know it's very important," he said.

But one mother at an elementary school said the school had alcohol hand gel. Some children licked it off their hands and became drunk.

Shoji's wife, Sandra, an instructor at Tokyo International University, complained that restrooms at many universities have only cold water because of a lack of money, and students don't seem particularly focused on washing.

"But teachers have become cautious and are like 'Monk,' " she said, referring to the TV show about an obsessive-compulsive investigator. "We use handkerchiefs to open doors. We use wipes after touching computers or students' papers. More teachers are having students send homework by e-mail or a university e-group. That way, teachers don't have to touch lots of germy papers."

The caution has applied to Japanese workers as well. Notices about H1N1 prevention -- washing your hands and wearing a mask if you are sick -- are displayed in many office buildings.

The government even launched a "cough etiquette" campaign telling people to cover their mouths with a tissue and turn away from others. Used tissues must be thrown away as soon as possible.

The problem is, Japan is so tidy that public trash cans can be hard to find.

--

Makino is a special correspondent.

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