Saturday, June 11, 2011

Ear Candy

Not long in Japan I woke up one morning with a severe earache which sent me running off to the jibika, or ear, nose and throat department of a local hospital. It turned out to be nothing more serious than a build up of wax in the left ear, and the doctor assured me he could take care of it with a quick one-time procedure. Totally trusting, I sat calmly while the doctor shone a light in my ear and began feeling around with a probe of some sort. Three seconds later a nurse had to peel me off the ceiling, red stars in my eyes and curse words in my mouth. Step one of a quick procedure done, step two coming up. It all ended well enough and was a first experience of having waxed cleaned out of my ears. I told a friend later that given a choice next time between cleaning my ears and a car wreck I would chose the latter.

Some years passed, thankfully without any more earaches, but one day in the barber’s chair my longtime trusted barber mentioned that he could see some wax in my ears and would I like to have my ears cleaned. A barber offering to do that came as no surprise, since the practice has long been a tradition in Japanese barbershops and I had seen it performed on several occasions. I agreed, and for the next ten minutes lay tilted back in the chair with a hand towel over my face while my friend and barber scraped around and wiped the inside of my ears using a mimi kaki—literally 'ear rake’—and soft cloth. Unlike the doctor’s probing years earlier, this time the whole business felt good and made me drowsy.

Ear cleaning in Japan is traditionally a family activity. Mimi kaki are used in homes all over Japan to clean the inside of the ear. The tool is more often than not made of bamboo and resembles a tiny spoon, shallow and softly curved. Used incorrectly it can be a dangerous implement, but gentleness and only shallow probing are obviously the key. There are many, doctors among them who will tell you not to put anything smaller in your ear than your little finger. Probably good advice, but on the other hand I’ve known few Japanese who feared having their ears cleaned with a mimi kaki and have heard no stories of mishaps.

The custom in most households is for mothers to clean their children’s ears and many grow up associating it with pleasant feelings of maternal closeness. Traditionally, mimi sôji or ear cleaning is done with the head resting on a lap pillow cradled comfortably in the lap of someone who loves you, as she kneels on the floor. This repeated experience is deeply imprinted on a child’s mind and creates positive, comforting feelings related to the cleaning.

Five years ago the Japanese government decided that ear cleaning would no longer be considered a medical procedure. This loosening of the rules was no doubt a step meant to ease a new kind of business into Japan’s voracious economy. And although barbers had been doing it for years, it meant that a medical license would be unnecessary for technicians working in a new and popular type of salon cropping up in Tokyo—small ear-cleaning parlors staffed by pretty young ladies dressed in either kimono or maid’s costume. The truth is, added to the bonus of having their ears cleaned, men were flocking to these salons to enjoy thirty minutes of laying their head in the lap of a pretty woman and enjoying some brief stress-relieving conversation while she tickled and massaged their ears. Cost? Somewhere between $25 and $30.00.

The idea of writing something about the business of cleaning ears in Japan came from a Japanese comic I read online the other day, one called Yamamoto’s Ear Cleaning Shop. Weird, weird stuff and pretty much what you’d expect on a website named Otakuworks, which in English would be something like “Nerdworks.” If you have the patience to click through the manga’s thirty-two pages, it will if nothing else show you another side of the ear-cleaning imprint on Japanese youth. Just remember to read and follow the story panels from right to left—Japanese style. Yamamoto’s Ear Cleaning Shop

1 comment:

  1. The ear candles found at the health food stores do the job of removing ear wax much easier than this ceremony. Maybe we should ship some of the candles to Japan. These candles are remarkable as they get all kinds of wax and "gunk" out of the ear safely.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America