Shopping for negative ions

by Yoko Hani

Why, how, and even whether negative ions are beneficial to health may be the subject of highly charged scientific debate, but that’s done nothing to dampen a craze for products boasting this invisible asset that’s gripping the Japanese market.

As the old saying goes, “A bit of what you fancy does you good,” and though skeptics might regard it as bizarre, there’s no doubt millions of buyers now fancy buying into this latest healthy-living boom. And makers of all manner of items are eagerly jumping on the bandwagon.

Just step into any home-appliance shop or the health-care section of a department store, and you’ll immediately see a whole range of mainasu-ion (minus-ion) goods — from hair dryers to air conditioners, generators, fridges and dehumidifiers. And they are selling like hot cakes, according to a shop clerk of Ishimaru Denki, a major appliance store in Tokyo’s “Electric Town” of Akihabara. The shop now even has a special “minus-ion items section” where all these goods, as well as air purifiers, electric fans, vacuum cleaners, hair brushes and more are displayed along with promotional material that’s big on the word “health.”

“They all sell well, but hair dryers are the most popular item,” the clerk said.

Meanwhile, in the home-appliance section of Bic Camera in Ikebukuro this month, under a sign proclaiming “Osusume (Recommended items of the shop),” there’s a special, alluring display of hair dryers designed to release negative ions. And in case any potential buyers might be wavering, this is backed by a slogan declaring: “After swimming, you can get back your healthy hair by drying it with negative ions.”

And sure enough, a shopper from Saitama Prefecture who was browsing through the products said she planned to buy one because her friend said her hair has “turned more beautiful” after using the negative-ion dryer.

Although figures are not yet available for the value of the negative-ion products market nationwide, store operators are in unanimous agreement that the products have helped to boost their sales in the past year. And according to industry sources, hair dryers — whose sales rarely vary much from year to year — have posted a remarkable upturn of about 20 percent, apparently due to the negative-ion products that have come on the market. This is despite the fact that these dryers — at around 15,000 yen — are roughly twice the price of top-of-the-range regular dryers.

Air conditioners, too, are contributing to the feelgood factor for makers, retailers — and, presumably, the consumers.

Toshiba Carrier Corp., one of the first makers to market a negative-ion air-conditioner unit, in autumn 1999, has seen public interest grow dramatically. “We tried to create an air conditioner that improves the quality of the air, and the answer was negative ions,” said Akinori Nakashima, a company spokesman.

He explained that their air conditioners are fitted with a negative-ion generator in which a high voltage is passed through electrodes. These electrodes then discharge electrons that combine with oxygen molecules to produce negative ions. As air passes out through the appliance, negative ions are constantly emitted, he said.

At first, however, this new-fangled feature failed to catch consumers’ attention to any great extent. But once the media latched on and began playing up the supposed positive effect of negative ions on health, it really began to take off.

“Now, three summers later, it has become a big hit — and much more so than we had ever expected,” Nakashima said, adding that his company has yet to compile total sales figures for its negative-ion product lines.

Perhaps that’s in some way understandable, because those product lines just keep on getting longer. Matsushita Electric Works, for example, has designed a bathroom unit equipped with a shower that douses its user in negative ions. The so-called “mist shower” does this “in the same way that a waterfall produces negative ions at the base,” the maker claims.

But big-ticket household items are only the tip of the negative ionberg. One maker, for instance, is selling a T-shirt that emits negative ions. The secret, it claims, is in the the synthetic fiber that creates negative ions when it rubs against the skin. Others are there to cater to your nocturnal well-being, too, with negative-ion mattresses and pillows — and even a Teddy Bear for a healthy cuddle.

Whatever will they come up with next, you might be thinking. But there are people who never say enough when it comes to negative ions.

Yukiko Sato, a Tokyo office worker says, “Since I placed an air purifier that generates negative ions in my room, I haven’t needed any aromatics to remove unpleasant smells.” Sato said that she became a fan of negative ions after she started using water containing negative ions, three years ago. The water is tasty, she says, and also good for her skin.

“I bought the air cleaner in May, and now I’m feeling the effects. I think the quality of the air in my apartment room has got much better, and I feel more comfortable and can definitely sleep better than before.”