Wacky potions can be crocks of gold


The doorbell rang. It was my neighbor, Mrs. S., asking if the lady of the house (a Taiwanese) could help her by translating the Chinese-language instructions for a “miracle” baldness remedy that someone had brought back from China and presented to her husband.

From what I recall, the instructions read: Apply to scalp twice daily, gently rubbing in a clockwise motion. Do not wash head immediately afterward. Use sparingly. If rash appears, discontinue use. And so on.

I knew it was a crock, and I think Mrs. S. probably did too. But Mr. S. was plagued by thinning hair and apparently ready to grasp at any straws that offered a chance to rejuvenate his appearance.

For a brief while in the 1980s, the celebrated Beijing baldness remedy was all the rage. People made special trips to China just to cram suitcases full of the stuff and bring it back. Subsequent to the baldness remedy which, like the hairs atop Mr. S’s scalp, soon fell from grace, China has been the source of numerous teas, lotions, elixirs and other products boasting miraculous properties.

Another I recall was a soap that claimed to promote weight loss. Although I did not use it myself, I suppose to some degree the “slimming soap” worked. After all, dirt is matter; ergo, it has weight. If you use the soap to remove it from your epidermis, you will, in fact, “lose weight.” If you’re extremely dirty, you’ll lose even “more” weight. And if you scrub hard enough, you’ll shed your outer layer of skin as well.

How is it that these “miracle” Chinese products find such willing buyers?

One is moved to recall the saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But apparently there’s more to it than that.

“I suppose at least part of it comes from the way many Japanese have been conditioned to believe China is the source of innumerable traditional remedies,” says a specialist in internal medicine at a private hospital in western Tokyo. “Chinese have been developing such remedies for thousands of years, so usually there’s something to them.

“Also, Chinese are quite entrepreneurial,” he adds. “They know if they can get people to start spreading claims about a drug or whatever by word of mouth, others will pick it up, and it spreads fast.”

Nonetheless, it would seem that when it comes to wonder drugs, Chinese are as easily defrauded as Japanese. The South China Morning Post of Dec. 29 noted that fifth on the list of confidence tricks during 2003, with 22 cases through November, were “It’ll cure anything” scams, in which culprits approached their victims trying to sell some herbs, pills or medicine by exaggerating their clinical effect. (Alternatively, they lure the victim into becoming partners in a joint venture, with the promise of huge profits.)

Surely another reason for naive faith in miracle treatments is Japan’s apparently lackadaisical enforcement of existing laws aimed at protecting consumers from misleading advertising claims. The authorities appear to take the position that, unless a medication is actually harmful, the rule of “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) applies.

A perusal of second-tier men’s magazines reveals dubious advertising in abundance. A recent issue of Shukan Asahi Geino carried no fewer than 22 ads for male sex aids, many of which can be described as potency drugs. These include lotions, creams or sprays applied directly to the, er, skin, as well as wines, powders and drugs in tablet, capsule or powdered form. They are by no means cheap; the smallest quantity typically sells for between 9,000 yen and 15,000 yen. Their one common attribute is the promise of “invigorating” the user’s love life and/or “satisfaction” for the recipient of the user’s affections.

Missing from these ads was an old favorite of mine, a long-selling tonic called Tengu Juosei. The name translates roughly as “Spirit of the 10 Kings Goblin.” Among its ingredients are extracts from a certain type of eel and two species of indigenous poisonous snakes.

Tengu Juosei has been around at least since the 1960s. Back then it was endorsed in national magazine ads and appeared on prominently displayed drug-store posters featuring two idolized professional wrestlers — the late “Giant” Baba and Antonio Inoki. Unfortunately, this product’s fortunes appear to have waned — along with the resident snake population. A few establishments still dispense it via mail order at 9,000 yen for a bottle of 120 tablets, but it clearly no longer enjoys its former status as the pick-me-up of choice among pro-wrestling fans.

Whether these potency tonics really work or not, the ads are a great source of amusement. Last spring I spotted one promoting an elixir composed of extract of ants. Yes, ants. These mighty insects, the maker proclaimed, are capable of lifting 50 times their own body weight. By ingesting this yucky stuff, the ad implied, you too will be able to boast the strength of an ant!

But why pay for such a potion? It occurred to this writer that, given the abundance of the main ingredient, it would be easy enough, and far cheaper, to go to a park one warm summer’s day, sprinkle some sugar and await the inevitable arrival of your potency extract by the hundred — all there just ready to be consumed on the hoof, as it were. And unlike tiger penis or powdered rhino horn, few would likely complain about threats to endangered species.