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Saturday, Jan. 18, 2003

JAPAN LITE

Starting the year with a 32-person cold


It's January, when you see many Japanese people wearing surgical masks. No they are not doctors on call. Those people have "pulled the wind," as the Japanese say: They have caught a cold. They wear the masks either to contain their germs and avoid spreading them to others, or, more likely, to hide their runny noses.

Kids, however, don't have to wear these masks, which is why I think there should be a ban on all hand-shaking in January. You see, whenever I am called on to visit an elementary school in Japan, the teachers make the children shake hands with me. This has always struck me as strange, since in the West, children don't shake hands with adults. (If I ever have children of my own, perhaps I will make them bow to any Japanese person they meet).

So I guess teachers like to make their students shake hands for the thrill of touching a foreigner. As a result, 32 children wiped their noses on their hands, then shook hands with me. I came home having caught 32 colds.

In Japan, colds are described as "popular." In trendy Japan, it is no wonder the whole nation comes down with a cold or the flu at the same time. My enormous 32-person cold started when I woke up unable to breathe through my nose. I desperately fished around the bottom of my closet for some medicine and found some nose drops I had brought from the U.S. I had completely forgotten I had it. I understood why when I saw the expiration date on the bottle: June 1994.

Whenever I get a cold, my body takes on seasons of its own. My nose is currently experiencing a rainy season. Precipitation occurs in large glutinous drops. In one day my nose can experience several centimeters of precipitation. Storms brew inside, culminating in sneezes. All I can do is blow my nose again and again and wish there were a special nozzle on my vacuum cleaner for noses so it could just suck out all the liquids.

True to "o-shogatsu" and the new year, the January cold is functional. Following the yearend cleaning of your house, you get a beginning-of-the-year cleaning of the body. In my case, it is Hatsu Big Nose Cleaning, or the first big nose cleaning of the year.

The rest of my body has been purified by the cold medicine I took, which sucked me completely dry. My body is now experiencing an African dry season, with cracked skin and constant thirst. A bath provides a temporary oasis.

It makes you wonder exactly how cold medicine works. The box says it will relieve you of cold symptoms, but the medicine is just a capsule. What does it do with all the liquids? And why, at 1,200 yen for 10 pills, is cold medicine so expensive?

My guess is salaries. They have to pay the little guys inside those capsules who are released upon arrival in your stomach. They go around and gather the liquids, then store the capsules inside the lining of your stomach like barrels of nuclear waste.

It makes you wonder why someone can't come up with medicine to just kill the virus rather than merely relieving the symptoms. Oh, am I sounding too American now? Of course, if they killed the virus, colds wouldn't be popular anymore and those little guys would be out of a job. That would jeopardize Japan's "amakudari" system as well as the pharmaceutical world, which probably has large government contracts with the viruses.

Better to strap on a surgical mask, take cold medicine and suffer together as a nation. Then add a January handshake tax.

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.


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