Cultural Pickup: Feeling Ill in Japan
Four ways the Japanese act to prevent spreading illness
The following is not professional medical advice, merely opinion.
It's cold and flu season. Yuck. There's nothing worse than hitting that seasonal low, especially when you're supposed to be enjoying it. I remember one year back in elementary school spending not only the two weeks of my Christmas vacation time in bed or in my room, but Christmas morning in bed with a temperature and feeling like I was going to heave at any moment. No fun. But that's life. No one avoids the "demons" of the season every year. What if you could lessen your chances though? Not only yours, but the chances of everyone around you: friends, family, coworkers?
One of the most thought-provoking cultural aspects I've made habit during my 20 years of living in Japan is the community-based preventative measures taken by the Japanese during the flu/cold season.
Before I go on any further, please don't misunderstand, I'm not trying to promote Japanese culture as if it's the best in the world. Every culture has its ups and downs. But when you live in a country for a while, you naturally pick up on the native groove of things, and I felt that a proactive effort to promote community health was a positive one to share. We can all learn something new together. (But I digress.)
While the results may be pretty much the same (I don't have data on this, and I'm not an expert), and I don't prescribe rigidly to all of the following ideas all the time, I do find that Japan's concept of think-of-community-before-self based preventative measures are perhaps a little more on the logical side of combating illness. That is to say, instead of getting the flu shot to prevent yourself from getting ill... get it so the wider community stays healthy. After all, a healthy community is beneficial to us all.
So without further ado, a look at some of the most common ways the Japanese try to combat spreading illness during winter, especially in work places or at school.
1) Wearing masks - Unfortunately, not the Halloween kind (wouldn't that be cool?), but a procedural mask. This is perhaps one of the hardest to adapt to as it can feel a little silly wearing a "surgical" mask all the time (or at least when you leave your home). But once you see everyone else doing it, you start to feel less conscious about it.
The Japanese love masks so much, that some folks have taken to wearing them year-round to prevent themselves from catching ill. The problem with that is, of course, masks are to prevent you from passing on to others what you already have, not really for preventing what others may give you. (Japanese doctors have confirmed this on TV multiple times.) I'm sure it does work as a preventative measure in some way (and that's how the majority of Japanese use masks), but I think reliance on them can be a bit overdone.
From Wikipedia's entry on the common cold:
There is no vaccine for the common cold. The primary methods of prevention are hand washing; not touching the eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands; and staying away from sick people. Some evidence supports the use of face masks.
That said, I think it's smart that many companies ask employees to wear masks to work for several days if they have, or have had, a sick family member in the last few days. After all, you are sharing the same "sick" air, and illnesses do take several days to turn around (and render you ill thereafter); it's all about precaution.
2) Gargling - While I have gargled on many occasion for personal hygiene, I had never thought of it as an effective preventive measure for illness, but a study in Japan showed it to be, so gargle Japan does. Young to old, during winter, with plain water (though I have heard some people gargle with green tea? Just an urban myth, perhaps?). This short entry on Wikipedia notes the study, but there are skeptics. The Japanese are, if nothing else, all about the odds. You have to give them that. So, works or no, they are going to continue to gargle.
3) Hand sanitizer - If you're going to be touching doorknobs, desks, PCs and shaking hands all day (consider skipping handshaking), it might be a good idea to consider a hand sanitizer. While they don't stop all bacteria and viruses, they can be effective.
4) Have a temp? Stay home - If you have a temperature, it's a good bet you might have something. It might not be the flu, and it might not be debilitating, but why would you want to risk passing it around anyway? If you hit 38C (100.4F), stay home, say the Japanese. And while you're at it, go to the doctor, and, if it is something nasty coming on, you can catch it early, possibly lessening the full effects.
That's it. It's a pretty simple, logical list. Again, there are no guarantees, but the world is a nicer place when we look out for each other.
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