WEEKEND WISDOM

Parasitologist says excess hygiene threatens Japan

by Taiga Uranaka

Far from being next to godliness, the Japanese obsession with cleanliness puts individuals at higher risk of disease and may even threaten the entire country, according to parasitologist Koichiro Fujita.

“These hygiene-obsessed people will be extinct in the next 100 years” unless there is a change, the 61-year-old professor at Tokyo Medical and Dental University warns.

Fujita’s solution, it seems, is the tapeworm. He began cultivating the parasite in his body four years ago and currently has three in his intestines.

The professor contends that the extreme pursuit of cleanliness has ironically made the Japanese more vulnerable to allergies, leading to conditions including dermatitis, asthma and hay fever.

Parasites, he said, cause the host body to produce the IgE antibody, which prevents such allergic reactions.

It is no accident that the emergence of these allergic conditions in Japan around 1965 coincided with the elimination of parasites from most people, he added.

Fujita came to believe in the benefits of parasites when studying tropical diseases in Kalimantan, Indonesia, in the 1970s. He said the local children were infested with parasites from bathing in polluted rivers but were allergy-free and had “beautiful skin.”

His theory is that the human body has developed a symbiotic relationship with a number of parasites and germs, and that the current Japanese obsession of purging them from their bodies does more harm than good.

According to Fujita, the traditional Japanese concern with cleanliness started to become an obsession after a government-led public hygiene campaign in the Meiji era (1868-1912).

The advent of commercialism and the deluge of anti-germ products it has brought has driven this to almost fanatical levels, as shown by people who avoid using toilet seats after someone else and the public’s sensitivity to germs on the skin.

And there is more than academic interest behind the researcher’s sympathy with parasites, with Fujita believing the drive for cleanliness has led to a societal urge to eliminate different elements, as seen in the rise in school bullying.

“Parasitologists like myself are treated like parasites in the academic world,” he said. “(Researchers) could afford to have a parasitologist or two among them but they think we are unnecessary and one colleague even told me to quit.

“I am often not invited to important meetings and my colleagues make sarcastic comments,” he said. “Corporate sponsors stopped funding my research after I started saying obsession with cleanliness is a bad thing.”

He said people seem to be striving for conformity and try to hide their existence as much as possible.

“But this way of life is effectively giving up living,” he said. “Animals try to hide their existence by erasing their body odor before dying, but the Japanese start doing so when they are in elementary school.”

Intolerance toward different views has created a society hostile to diversity, which all living things need to survive, Fujita says.

“Each knot of a tapeworm is hermaphroditic, but it mates with various other knots to diversify its genes,” he said. “Without gene diversity, individuals cannot survive.”

The professor believes this lack of diversity is the reason Japan lost its competitive edge in the 1990s.

“The key word of this lost decade is diversity,” he said

The Japanese have forgotten they are part of nature and have lost their tolerance toward other living creatures, including tapeworms, he said.

“Unless we have tolerance, the Japanese will die out in the near future.”