City Life - Tokyo: Japan recoils at suffocating scent of a salaryman

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The Independent Online
YOU MIGHT have thought the salaryman, the grey-suited symbol of modern Japan, had suffered enough indignity in the past few years.

Since the collapse of the "bubble economy" seven years ago, he has watched a lifetime's hard work go down the drain as bankruptcy and restructuring have ravaged corporate Japan. Many employees have lost their jobs and others have seen their firms taken over by foreign rivals. But now a new, more grotesque humiliation has been heaped on the heads of Japan's corporate warriors.

By general consensus, they smell - and the rest of Japan is clamouring for them to do something. In the past few months Japan's biggest cosmetics company, Shiseido, has achieved extravagant success with a range of products intended frankly to eliminate middle-aged body odour. Another company is marketing deodorant undergarments, aimed at the over-40s.

Surveys show high levels of disgust among the younger, specifically female sections of the population.

The tone of the backlash is summed up in a recent television advert for Deo-Green, a line of vests, long-johns, Y-fronts and boxer shorts said to devour the micro-organisms responsible for BO.

A woman stands listening to a Walkman on one of Tokyo's crowded rush- hour trains. All around her stand oblivious salarymen, armpits and greasy necks bobbing and swaying at the level of her nose. Her distress rises, she screams and solves the problem by removing the Walkman headphones and replacing them in her nostrils.

According to a survey of young women by Deo-Green's manufacturer, 92.8 per cent of them believe men should do something about their sweaty odour; 68.7 per cent of the sample object to the smell of their fathers, 80 per cent to that of fellow commuters, and 96.4 per cent of working women said their bosses pong.

"I don't usually mind the smell of people, but oji-san smell is different," Miwako Shikata, a film-school graduate, said. "I'd say it's up there along with vomit and the smell of public toilets." Oji-san means uncle, but comes to stand for middle-aged men in general, and it this group - the over 40s - that are bearing the brunt of the odour offensive.

But it took Shiseido, better known for make-up and perfumes aimed at the young female, to come up with a name and a solution for the oji-san's shame. The man behind it is Shoji Nakamura, Shiseido's chief perfumer, or "nose", a man with olfactory organs so sensitive he can distinguish more than 2,000 scents. "About 12 years ago, when I was near middle-aged or elderly people in trains or meetings or queues, I began noticing the characteristic smell," he said. "It is greasy and oily, with nuance of green grass."

Four years ago Shiseido gave him the go-ahead and a team of five embarked on Project Oji-san. The first step was to gather raw material, and for this Dr Nakamura turned to colleagues. "I asked them to wear T-shirts and night garments for three straight nights. Then I analysed the constituents."

Using a technique known as headspace gas chromotography analysis, he identified the greasy, grassy smell that had caught his imagination all those years ago - a type of "unsaturated aldehyde" called nonenal. "Tests revealed that nonenal is formed when fatty 9-hexadecenoic acid is oxidised or dissolved by skin microflora," according to Shiseido. This tends not to occur until the 40s and 50s.

The Shiseido team then set itself the task of eliminating and concealing the repulsive excretion. The result is a line of patented cosmetics that neutralise and mask nonenal.

Packaged in neutral orange and selling for a few pounds apiece, they have surpassed sales projections to make the company pounds 1.42m in three months, most of it spent by women on behalf of their husbands. There is oji-san body shampoo and oji-san body powder, oji-san body mist and moistened wipes for sweaty brows. There is even an oji-san air freshener, for fragrant daughters to spray around their rooms after the departure of their smelly fathers. On each can, in bright letters, is the slogan of the entire range: "Wow! Where did that smell go?"