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Ear rakes

by Alice Gordenker

Dear Alice,
Imagine my horror when I came home one evening to find my Japanese wife bent over our little son, about to thrust a sharpened stick into his ear! I shouted at her to stop, giving her the fright of her life. She protested that she was merely trying to clean the wax out of his ears. I said the wax will come out by itself. “Not Japanese ear wax,” she said. “It’s different.” To which I said something rude that you may print as, “Yeah, right.” Now we’re not speaking. Can you please find out what the heck those sticks are, and if there’s any reason I should let my wife stick one in my kid’s ears?
Andrew R., Oita Prefecture

Dear Andrew,

Those sticks are called mimi kaki (literally, “ear rakes”) and they are used in homes all over Japan to muck out the inside of the ear. These ear picks are not exactly sharpened, but they are fashioned with a curved tip to facilitate the scraping of wax from the ear canal. Ear wax is called mimi aka (“ear dirt”) or mimi kuso (“ear dung”) in Japanese, and your wife is right on one point: Not all ear wax is created equal.

Before I dig into all that, please hear me out while I provide a little background. In English, the medical term for ear wax is “cerumen”; in Japanese it’s jiko, written with the same characters as mimi aka. Cerumen is a mixture of natural secretions and dead skin cells, and its presence in the outer part of the ear canal is completely normal. It’s there to protect the skin of the ear canal and keep out things you wouldn’t want in your ear, including bacteria, water and cockroaches. (I’m not kidding on the bugs; doctors are regularly called on to extract insects, which seem to be drawn to the ear because it’s warm and dark inside.)

Like you, I’ve heard Japanese people wax on about the putative peculiarities of their ear wax, but I hadn’t put much credence in their claims. I figured humans are humans, and ear wax is ear wax. So it was quite a surprise to learn, when I started researching your question, that there are in fact two distinct types of ear wax — “wet” and “dry.” Which you have depends on your genes.

People in East Asia are most likely to have the dry type, which is gray and flaky. Europeans and Africans almost always have the wet stuff, which is amber-colored and waxy because it contains more lipids. In 2006, a team of Japanese researchers led by Koh-ichiro Yoshiura of Nagasaki University identified the gene that determines which type you get. They also found that the switch of a single unit in the gene makes the difference; if the change deactivates the gene, you end up with the gray, flaky type. The researchers speculate that the mutation was an adaptation to the colder climate in which the ancestors of East Asians lived.

Getting back to your fufugenka (marital dispute), if I assume, for argument’s sake, that you are not Asian, then it’s a safe bet that your ear wax is the wet type. That’s because over 90 percent of Caucasians have the wet type, as do virtually all Africans. Your wife, on the other hand, most likely has dry-type ear wax; about 90 percent of Japanese do. The wet-wax trait is dominant, so if you’re a wettie, your son probably is too.

Regardless of which wax your son has — and here’s where you can say “I told you so!” — your wife has no business poking around in his ear. “In a healthy ear, it is neither necessary nor desirable to remove wax,” Hitome Kobayashi, associate professor of otorhinolaryngology at Showa University School of Medicine, told me. Ears have a self-cleaning mechanism, aided by normal movement of the jaw.

“Furthermore, using an ear pick is very dangerous,” she stressed. “You can’t see inside so you’re working blindly, and if someone bumps your arm the pick could cause serious injuries such as a perforated ear-drum.”

There are times when ear wax has to be removed, but it should be always be handled by a medical professional. “If someone experiences symptoms such as pain, discharge, a sense of fullness or hearing loss, they should go to a doctor who has training and special tools,” Kobayashi said, showing me some nifty ear forceps, and aspiration devices that can suck the wax right out.

It’s hard to convince parents not to clean their children’s ears, according to Kobayashi, because so many Japanese grew up having their ears cleaned by their mothers, and associate it with pleasant feelings of maternal closeness. The ideal mimi soji (ear cleaning) is done with your head in a hizamakura (“lap pillow”), which means cradled comfortably in the lap of someone who loves you, as she kneels on the floor.

My friend Mamoru remembers drifting into a relaxed sleep while his mother cleaned his ears on her lap. His wife refuses to do the same for him, so he occasionally patronizes one of the ear-cleaning salons that have sprung up recently. At his favorite, which charges ¥2,700 for a 30-minute session, an attractive young woman dressed in a kimono will take his head in her lap while she attends to his ears.

Actually, many adults find it pleasurable to clean their own ears. But recreational ear-cleaning, even if it doesn’t lead to outright injury, irritates the ear canal and stimulates the ear to secrete more wax. That in turn leads to obstructions, itching, more cleaning and further irritation. “It’s a vicious cycle,” Kobayashi said. “I’ve seen people who clean one ear so much that the skin thickens, so that even they can tell that the ear canal on that side has become considerably smaller than the other.”

“Japanese people can get fastidious in strange ways,” she said with a sigh.

To watch a sickly fascinating video of dry-type ear wax being removed from an ear, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8LBt7aMMvs&feature=related. It’s like gawking at a car accident — you know you shouldn’t look but it’s hard to stop. Puzzled by something you’ve seen? Send a description, or better yet a photo, to whattheheckjt@yahoo.co.jp or A&E Dept., The Japan Times, 5-4, Shibaura 4-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8071.