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That Thing in the Middle of Your Face

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One amazing phenomenon a Western visitor to Japan may not notice, mainly because the most amazing thing about it is that it doesn’t happen, which right off the bat makes it hard to spot, but also because it isn’t the sort of thing you think about a lot in the course of daily life, is the marked absence of noses being blown everywhere you go. Once the fact hits you, though, if you give it a few moments of your attention on the train, say, or in any crowded public place, the uniqueness of that silence can be deafening.

Yes, it’s true. The Japanese never blow their noses. How many of you have ever seen a Japanese blow a nose? (This does not include sansei and upward.) Or have read about this national dearth in a newspaper? Worldwide, there are no op-ed articles on this amazing fact. (Don’t believe me? Google Japan+”nose blowing” and see what you get!) But then who wants to interview anybody, or be interviewed, about not blowing their noses? So I am setting the fact free for the first time here: public and even private noses are not blown in Japan, with perhaps the rare exception of one who wishes to appear Western.

In another amazing aspect of nasal refeshment in Japan, foreigners like myself, who blow their noses in public places, are automatically thereby rendered invisible!! Don’t ask me to explain this. But Japanese? No, no noseblow. Blowing and then putting the sodden result back in your pocket is even grosser to the sensibilities of Wa. But it’s invisible when foreigners do it, since that’s what foreigners do. As an alien beneficiary of the invisibility factor, I’m the only one, for example, who can blow a nose with impunity in my office. This freedom, understandably, is unsavored in the West.

This national nasal taboo may have something to do with the fact that the nose is where the Japanese self is located, which can be disconcerting (“Who, me?” = point to nose) to a new arrival from abroad whose self is localized somewhere around the sternum, or even elsewhere. Also amazingly (some days, there’s just amazement all over the place), despite this societywide refusal to stem the natural nasal flux, you never see Japanese with runny noses; there are no Time covers of runny-nosed Japanese, no exposes on the general nasal runniness of the country. Why? Because if the Japanese have a runny nose they wear a gauze mask. That’s right, they let their noses run free. So this is not a country of tubercular individuals moving around in public, as you new arrivals may have thought; those masked folks just have runny noses, noses that run as free as– well, whatever the simile, it can’t be a pretty sight.

So next time you folks from abroad get a cold in Japan (where for some reason they hand out free tissue packets on the street corners), and feel that urge to whip out the old linen handkerchief or a fresh tissue in a public place and “sound your schnozz,” “call in the boats,” “bring down the Walls of Jericho,” go right ahead. But be aware of the cultural privilege you’re enjoying. Then put the whole wad back in your pocket; trust me: your actions are invisible. If it’s visibility you’re after, wear a mask.

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About Robert Brady

  • Have you specifically asked any Japanese people that you know why this is so? I’d be curious to hear what they have to say about it.

  • Eric Olsen

    fascinating and hilarious Robert, thanks! I don’t think I ever noticed this in my total of about 6 weeks in Japan, but the wonders of the culture never cease. I think that is a big part of why I was so entranced by Lost In Translation.

  • Brilliant, Robert! Thank you.

    If I had read this about three weeks ago I could have asked the Japanese ambassador to Jamaica or one of the three visiting Karate masters whilst attending a karate exhibition.

    Oh, well… I’ll remember the next time I am privileged to be in their (I’m pointing to ‘their’ noses, not sternums or other parts) company. 😉

  • kryzol

    I know u wrote this a while ago but I must say I enjoyed reading this! When I went to Japan I got a cold and bought a mask b/c one of my teachers said it was rude to blow my nose there in public. And it was just so funny how I used her advice b/c I am a honduran girl who who wore a leaopard print mask in Kyoto which caught a few nihonjin eyes. So fun. I loved it!