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Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Kicking up a stink about smelling as natural as a skunk


While beauty traditionally belongs to the beholder's eye, correct hygiene might be better ascribed to his or her nose.

With this in mind comes news that an American scientist has perfected odor-free sweat socks.

You can grunt your way through an entire marathon and when finished your socks will hardly smell any worse than when you first began -- even if you ran so poorly you stunk up the field.

The larger implications are that one day all garments will have such treatment, thus creating a planet secure from body odor.

Since my son's sweat socks often show more life than he does and can only be removed from his feet after we have first alerted the entire neighborhood and then extinguished all open fires, one would be prone to call such a smell-less invention a boon for mankind. Sort of the Salk vaccine of the nasal world.

My Japanese wife, however, decries this fresh assault on stench.

"So sometimes people smell? So what? Young folk today are too obsessed with cleanliness. Deodorant and cologne and multiple showers . . . Why, some young Japanese shun odor like it was a disease. When, in reality, it's a part of life!"

And a pretty repugnant part of life at that.

Yet my wife will preach that a picky sense of smell too often keeps today's youth from interacting with the elderly, the sick and other needy.

She also claims touchy noses have helped create a generation that doesn't like to do dirty work, period.

While not quite sharing her drool for this subject, I do admit I find the prospect of an unscented Japan not only odd but also somewhat sad. For many of my fondest memories of this land rate as just a bit smelly.

Of course, my American home possesses memorable smells of its own. Rather ripe smells too, as where I hail from, if you are not a pig farmer, it most likely means you're one of the pigs. And in many cases the distinction is not so clear.

Still, when I arrived in Japan, I found the place fuming with odors I had never inhaled anyplace else. From the overworked air of the commuter lines to the briny twinge of the fish markets to the ever-present dribble of soy . . . I knew I was not in pigland anymore.

However, I still sweltered like a champion porker, especially in the mugginess of summer. My immediate instincts were thus to crop-dust my underarms with deodorant, and my Kyushu-wide search for such a product soon became akin to the hunt for the Holy Grail.

"Tell me again what you want," the grandma at the drugstore would snort, wiping tears from her eyes.

"Well . . . it's this stuff, see . . . it comes in a tall can, like bug spray . . . only you squirt it under your arms . . . and it makes you not stink."

At which point the woman would rupture herself with laughter.

Antiperspirant, like fast food and Diet Coke, remained but a distant twinkle in the eyes of Kyushu commerce. Prompting more than one Western friend to write home with the following frantic message . . .

"Forget cookies, Mom! Send RightGuard!"

"Just carry one of these," a Japanese colleague told me, pinching up a damp hanky. "Then mop down your face and neck two or three times each minute and you'll be fine!"

Meanwhile, water seeped from this man's pits like rain from a leaky roof. And not just him. Each person I saw sparkled with the fine shine of a full day's work.

Including my cute-as-a-button fiancee. We would sit in the flush of her cozy kitchen, with a bowl of pickled scallions tickling our sinuses and the plume of a mosquito coil spicing the air, and I would just assume her persistent glow meant love.

A romance that thus started moist and has never dried out.

An observation that perhaps can't be made for the rest of Japan. For cosmetic companies have since feasted upon the aseptic sensibilities of a nation already prone toward cleanliness.

In Japanese high schools, for example, kids used to tug on gym clothes, dash about in PE for an hour, rush back in and then jump straight into their uniforms for their next class. No soap, no showers, no deep breaths. Boys and girls alike.

No one gave this sweaty situation even a single shrug.

No doubt this drippy scenario still exists today. Yet now hankies and towels have been supplemented with enough hygiene products to mummify students, let alone keep them fresh.

And thus opening my wife's dam burst against the ever-expanding sanitation zone of the young.

"Did you know," she sizzles, "there are now powders you can take that will mask the reek of a person's body wastes? And why are scientists devoting time to creating such nonsense? Because with the growing number of bed-ridden elderly, younger Japanese are frowning at the thick tinge of grampa and grandma's diapers!"

"So what's your answer?" I finally say, beginning to believe that peace of mind belongs to the ears. "Would you be happier if we all smelled like skunks?"

"No, but what's wrong with being natural!"

At which point my son pants in from basketball practice and begins to pry off his sweat socks.

We hold our breath. The wallpaper crinkles. The lights blink off and on.

"So," my wife sums up with a gasp, "how soon can we order this stuff?"

And thus, perfect or not, progress still sniffles along. Smelling sweeter and sweeter as it comes.



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