From sexual harassment and power harassment to maternity harassment and alcohol harassment, unjustifiable conduct in the workplace takes many forms. In recent years, however, a new issue has begun receiving media attention: “smell harassment.”
The “smell” referred to in the above phrase could be anything from bad breath and body odor to perfume and fabric softener. Regardless of whether a person is conscious of their odor or not, some consider it to be harassment if others are bothered by the smell.
However, unlike other types of harassment, smell harassment — often abbreviated as sumehara — is a very personal and sensitive issue, making it difficult for others to speak up.
It’s worth noting at this point that some men and women suffer from a medical condition called axillary osmidrosis (commonly called wakiga in Japanese), a hereditary disorder caused by the secretion of the apocrine gland that causes body odor. Experts say that an estimated 10-15 percent of the Japanese population have this condition, adding that, in most cases, it can be treated through surgery.
For the majority of the population, however, body odor is a consequence of general sweating. Both men and women sweat, but men are more likely to emit a stronger body odor. And more often than not, the person responsible for the odor is likely to be completely oblivious to the smell they are emitting because of olfactory fatigue, a condition in which individuals cannot distinguish a certain smell after being exposed to it for a period of time.
With more women in the workplace as well as commercials frequently using the term “kareishū,” the Japanese equivalent of “old-person smell,” men are increasingly becoming conscious of their smell.
Drugstores typically feature rows of men’s products, from roll-on and spray-type deodorants to body-wipe sheets, scalp-care shampoo and so on. Deodorizing suits and socks are now available at menswear chainstore Yofuku-no-Aoyama, while Konica Minolta Inc. launched a gadget that measures body odor called Kunkun Body in mid-July.
“Body odor is not just a personal issue, because it affects those around you,” says Keisuke Oku, chief of the Public Relations Division at major cosmetics manufacturer Mandom Corp. “It could not only make others not want to work with you, but also negatively impact what people think of you.”
In a survey compiled by Mandom in May, 63.1 percent of the 1,028 people who responded in Tokyo and Osaka ranked body odor as the No. 1 thing that bothers them during the government’s Cool Biz energy saving campaign, which calls on companies to set their air conditioners at 28 degrees Celsius.
More specifically, respondents highlighted body odor and bad breath as the top two grooming categories they wished others would pay closer attention to.
Meanwhile, respondents who have come across the words “smell harassment” appear to have doubled from 20.1 percent in 2014 to 45.8 percent in May.
“People’s awareness of body odor and smell is increasing,” Oku says. “It is not like sweat, which is mainly uncomfortable for yourself. Body odor will cause discomfort to others, too.”
Little by little, companies are also beginning to take action, asking their employees to attend “smell care” seminars hosted by Mandom to spread awareness of the issue. Mandom officially started hosting these seminars in 2014 and, so far, has held them at more than 50 companies for more than 2,500 employees.
On a scorching hot summer’s day in July, a group of men and women in their 20s to 40s gathered at a wedding banquet hall in Tokyo’s Kyobashi district. Here, the employees at Lumiveil Tokyo, a wedding reception hall, learned about the different types of body odor and how to prevent it.
There are two types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine. Depending on the area of your body, sweat from one or two of these glands mixed with sebum and/or lipid will give off various odors — an oily smell from the scalp, an odor of sourness from the armpits and a nattō fermented beans-like stink from the feet, Oku says.
Furthermore, old-person smell is caused by a substance called nonenal from around the chest and back area, while a middle-aged odor called midorushishū is triggered by diacetyl around the head and back of the neck area.
During the session, participants were asked to smell three different types of artificially recreated body odor: general sweat, middle-aged smell and old-person smell.
Oku says the strongest scent is the middle-aged odor that is distinctive among men in their 30s and 40s. However, participant Koji Fuchino expressed surprise that he couldn’t smell it. “I was the only one who couldn’t smell the middle-aged odor at all, so I guess that means I am used to it,” says Fuchino, who oversees wedding receptions. “I thought I was being careful, but I better take even better care of myself.”
Some people, however, have expressed concern that “smell harassment” is taking the issue a bit too far.
Tsuneaki Gomi, head of Gomi Clinic in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district and an expert in body odor and sweat, says about 70 percent of his patients who come to seek help do not actually suffer from excessive body odor.
“Body odor is something that troubles other people because we live in a society surrounded by others,” Gomi says. “Basically, it is about human relationships. No one would have to worry about body odor if we lived in complete solitude because we wouldn’t be bothering anybody else.”
Gomi started out his career as a psychiatrist studying olfactory reference syndrome, a mental disorder where a patient believes they are emitting an offensive body odor.
“People tend to prefer cleanliness, and so bad odor is typically associated with decay and dirt,” Gomi says. “So, when people have body odor, it makes them passive and avoid others, and eventually they end up confining themselves to their homes.”
Yoshihiko Akakabe, a biological chemistry professor at Yamaguchi University who specializes in scent, says that the organ of smell is frequently ignored compared to the other senses.
“People cannot see a scent and therefore don’t usually pay much attention to it,” Akakabe says. “We use our sense of smell unconsciously, including when doing such things as checking food to see if it is rotten or sometimes in life-threatening situations such as a gas leak.”
It is believed that we are surrounded by an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 odorous substances, of which humans can detect about 10,000. Akakabe, however, says people are typically able to identify a lot less than 10,000, even with a significant amount of training. Our sense of taste is also strongly connected to the olfactory. People have five basic tastes — sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness and umami — and it is our sense of smell that gives flavor to such dishes.
“There is no such thing as a completely odorless society,” Akakabe says. “There is always some sort of odorous substance in the air. We cannot eradicate smell altogether. And without smell, food would taste bland.”
An individual’s sense of smell is also influenced by a variety of factors, including preference and culture. In some countries, for example, truffles are considered a fragrant delicacy whereas in Japan, many people love the scent of matsutake mushrooms. Fermented nattō beans are also loved by many in Japan, while the smell makes others gag because it comes close to smelling like sweaty human feet.
Overseas fabric softeners even created a stir a few years ago. Some enjoyed the smell, while others found it extremely unpleasant and even filed complaints with consumer centers.
Surprisingly, when Akakabe asked his students to smell nonenal, known as old-person smell, many of his students didn’t mind the smell. However, when the smell comes from a boss at work, the reaction is typically negative, Akakabe says.
“There is no right or wrong answer because scent is connected to a person’s state of mind,” Akakabe says. “I think smell harassment is also a very difficult issue because, in most cases, the person in question would be completely oblivious to the discomfort he or she is causing.”
So are people with body odor doomed? Not at all, Gomi says.
The key to preventing nonenal from generating is to eat food with high levels of antioxidants such as fruit and vegetables, Gomi says. Anything from avocados, spinach and tomatoes to grapefruit, kiwifruit, green tea and red wine are not only good for your health but good for your body odor as well.
It almost goes without saying that a morning shower, effective antiperspirant and body-wipe sheets during the day go a long way in terms of office etiquette. However, Gomi notes that there is no need for people to be overly terrified of body odor.
“People’s awareness of smell has changed over the years and that itself is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I think we should avoid leaning too extremely toward a world without odor because body odor is one’s ultimate expression of individuality,” Gomi says. “Body odor is what separates us from others. It lies at the core of our own individual identity.”
Effective solutions to reduce body odor
1. Shower regularly: It’s best to use an antibacterial soap when washing, preferably twice a day.
2. Apply an over-the-counter antiperspirant: Antiperspirants form a layer of protection using certain chemicals to prevent you from sweating, which helps to eliminate body odor. Some recommend applying antiperspirant in the morning and evening. Roll-on or stick antiperspirants are better than spray varieties because they can cover a wider area, while applying special foot cream between your toes helps prevent stinky feet.
3. Keep your skin dry: If your skin is dry, it’s harder for bacteria that cause body odor to breed on it. Use such things as a towel or blotting paper to wipe off sweat and other moisture, and apply talcum powder after a shower.
4. Shave/trim your underarms: Hair absorbs odors easily, so removing the hair in your armpits can help to reduce the amount of body odor you emit.
5. Wear breathable fabrics: Natural fabrics such as cotton, silk and wool have more breathability than man-made materials such as polyester, rayon or spandex. More recently, clothing has been produced from a fabric that has been specially designed to deodorize and resist bacteria.
6. Eat a healthy diet: Avoid large quantities of red meat, garlic, onions, spicy foods and heavily processed foods that contain high amounts of sugar. Eat plenty of green vegetables, whole grains, raw nuts and seeds, healthy oils and phytonutrients such as sage, parsley and coriander that cleanse your insides. Fish, seaweed and beans are also recommended.
7. Eliminate stress: Stress stimulates the apocrine glands, which means that you’re more likely to produce body odor.
Konica Minolta unveils device to measure odor
Most people are reluctant to ask others whether their own body odor stinks or not. And even if an individual was able to work up enough courage to ask such a question, they’d have a hard time knowing whether the answer was sincere.
In an attempt to put people’s minds at ease, Konica Minolta Inc. recently unveiled what it claims is the world’s first device that measures and rates a person’s body odor.
The gadget, dubbed Kunkun Body (kunkun is an onomatopoeia for sniffing in Japanese), is a pocket-size instrument co-developed with the Osaka Institute of Technology that rates a person’s body odor on a scale of 1 to 100 and sends the results to a smartphone that is connected wirelessly.
“Scents are chemical substances but how people’s sense of smell works varies according to each individual,” says Daisuke Koda, one of the key researchers behind the instrument’s development.
“We realized a tool had yet to be created to measure smell,” Koda says. “We thought it would be very useful if we could create some kind of system to measure the types and strength of scents that are close to how humans smell.”
Koda demonstrates how easy it is to use. Users simply launch an application on their smartphone, place the device near the area where they want to measure their body odor (for example, their armpits or feet) and, about 20 seconds later, the results appear on their smartphone. The closer the number is to 100, the more that person’s body odor is noticeable.
The instrument also measures body odors related to aging that are common among middle-age men on a scale of 1 to 10.
“Body odor is one of the hardest things to point out to another person but because many people can’t smell their own odor, they have this vague sense of anxiety,” Koda says. “Now, however, they can feel assured by being able to ‘see’ their own scent.”
Creating pleasant aromas by adding foul smells
One minute I was gagging at the putrid stench of human excrement, the next I was enjoying a pleasant floral scent. And all it took was a quick spray of Deomagic air freshener, which completely removed any trace of the revolting stink.
Deomagic is a technology co-developed by Shikibo Ltd. and Yamamoto Perfumery Co. that constructs a fragrance by mixing together a potpourri of aromatic and foul scents. Yutaka Tsujimoto, general manager of the Textile Development and Engineering Department at Shikibo, says researchers first artificially create revolting odors such as human excrement, manure and rotting food waste, and then add layers of various scents on top of the stench to form a pleasant fragrance. The foul odor is then removed from the compound and the fragrance is bottled. When that fragrance is then later sprayed onto the same odor that had been removed, it completes the chemical composition of the mixture and the foul scent is eliminated.
“Isn’t it fascinating?” Tsujimoto asks. “The foul smell acts as a spice and creates a pleasant scent. This discovery has led us to solve various problems related to bad odor.”
To date, Deomagic has been used in products that deodorize pet litters, diapers, manure, vehicles that collect excrement and, most recently from June, garbage trucks.
As each Deomagic product is created to deodorize a specific smell, the ultimate scent varies. For example, the foul smell of diapers turns into a pleasant floral scent, while the stench of manure becomes a deliciously sweet aroma.
“Until now, so many people had to give up on not being able to deodorize bad odor,” Tsujimoto says. “It is encouraging to know that we are helping people by using the Deomagic technology and bringing them joy.”
A line of clothing that protects against bacteria
With the mercury soaring in summer, companies nationwide have implemented various measures to save energy under the government’s Cool Biz program, setting their air conditioners at 28 degrees and asking employees to dress more casually.
For many, however, dressing casually does not mean they should turn up to work in a T-shirt and a pair of shorts. They may not take a jacket to the office, but they will typically still be presentable in a button-down shirt over a cotton T-shirt. It’s hard to avoid sweating in this attire, and body odor can start to become problematic.
Fear not, however, because business-wear store Yofuku-no-Aoyama has released a whole new line of suits, jackets, dress shirts, ties, undershirts and socks for men using a hybrid catalyst technology called “tio tio premium process” that deodorizes and protects against bacteria.
Shota Suzuki, a spokesperson for Aoyama Trading Co., says the company has increased the number of items of clothing that have a deodorizing function by eight times compared to that of 2016, with a total of 565,000 articles on sale this year. Using a brand new technology, the clothes eliminate all sorts of smells, including those of sweat, food and cigarettes, Suzuki says.
“With an increase in women in the workplace, more men have become interested in deodorizing products,” Suzuki says. “Men now have the option of wearing deodorizing clothes from head to toe.”
According to Sunward Shokai Co.’s Shogo Kita, who developed the process last year, the technology uses an oxidation-reduction reaction that occurs when exposed to air or light. Because the hybrid catalyst ultimately covers the textile, Kita says the deodorizing and antibacterial functions last even after repeated washing.
“Basically, the tio tio premium processing technology will work wherever you are on this Earth,” Kita says. “Provided there is air and/or light, the deodorizing and antibacterial functions are effective 24 hours a day.”
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