There are many discrepancies in the Japanese language that I have become aware of since being here, whether it’s words with double, conflicting meanings, or just plain lack of clarity. One of the hardest to discern happens to be kaze, what we are taught to understand as a cold.
You would think that clarity in medical terms would be important. The word either has a broader meaning than cold, or there is something strangely different about the medical understanding of a cold in Japan.
A cold, as I have grown up to understand it, is a respiratory problem. Sinuses stuffed, cough and/or runny nose? That right there is a cold. In Japan, however, the term kaze is also used to diagnose digestive symptoms like diarrhea.
With some of the strange explanations from Japanese medical professionals I’ve heard vicariously, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Japanese perspective of a cold greatly differs from the west. Kaze could be more accurately compared to the non-technical phrases like “caught a bug.” It seems to be much more encompassing than just a respiratory cold.
A couple times a week, it seems, I overhear the phrase “choushi warui” being exchanged between my host parents. It’s basically a shrouded statement, “My condition is bad,” most commonly used with reference to digestion. You can almost always assume it means, “I’m irregular.” What immediately follows without fail is the comment, “I hope it’s not a cold.”
Let me quickly give an example of what I have heard.
Host dad: “My condition was bad this morning, but I got better throughout the day. I’m glad it’s not a cold.”
I have never connected a cold with excremental problems, and I doubt I will ever be convinced of that. I can say by simple observation that any problems with digestion are not likely caused by a cold, rather food preparation and sanitation if anything. Leftovers at my homestay do not get packaged up and refrigerated. They get placed in a covered pot on the stove or lightly draped with a sheet of saran wrap on the table and left to sit overnight. The lack of dish soap usage is concerning (it’s there, please use it). Not to mention the handling of meat products… and wooden cutting boards. [I often drizzle some dishsoap on the scrubber when my host parents aren't around to feel a bit more comfortable]
Several weeks ago Alexa came down with a fever. My host mom’s reaction was immediately that it must be a cold. When Alexa went to the clinic, however, she tested negative for influenza. She was told it was probably still influenza, but that it probably “hadn’t reached” her nose where they tested. What?! Something seems a bit wonky to me, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.
Japan’s solution to influenza and colds is wearing a facemask. I’m more than skeptical on the true effectiveness of a piece of paper preventing contraction of germs or a virus. At least it’s something, but there are other factors to Japan that I find to be blatantly ignorant.
Proximity is probably the biggest problem Japan has when it comes to spreading sickness. Population is dense, and a huge portion of the population relies on public transport for their daily commute. Said public transport is a deathtrap, being crammed shoulder to shoulder and breathing the same air stuck in an underground, enclosed train car. There was even a news feature recently along the lines of “Ride bus = Get influenza!” They recognize it too.
It’s true that many people do not wash their hands after using the restroom, but as a person who absolutely does, I am often struck clueless as to the unavailability of soap in many public restrooms. If soap is available, it’s quite watery to the point where one might assume it’s been diluted. Not to mention that sinks do not produce warm water almost anywhere. Often there are air driers for some peoples’ cold rinsed hands, but in some places there are none. Automatic air driers are a good step in the sanitary direction, but often it is expected that people carry their own handkerchiefs for drying their hands, if they feel like rinsing them that is.
The common advice for preventing colds and flu? This gets even more frustrating.
• Wash hands
• Wear a mask
I’ve already expressed my lack of confidence in masks and the complications for accomplishing a real hand washing, but gargling? Gargling is going to do nothing against those pesky germs and viruses out to get all of us. It just doesn’t make sense. It often feels that the Japanese are living under this veil of illusionment, but no one is going to speak out about things because that is just the way they are and expressing one’s own view is not commonly accepted.
It’s almost just as silly as being warned that if you only take a shower and not follow it up with a bath you’re going to catch a cold. Come on already! Taking a bath after a shower in the near equivalent of a rickety outhouse in the middle of winter is not going to make any difference. Your body is wet either way, and it’s just plain cold. The same rule still applies during summer.
Colds are the result of germs and viruses, not skipping a bath. I’ll stick to just my shower, thanks.