Dry ear-wax and why Japanese use mimikaki (ear-rakes) to remove it for their children (and themselves)


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I was shocked the first time I found my daughter’s ears clogged up with ear wax that had hardened into tiny cannonballs (not for want of cleaning) and that had to be removed by a ear-nose-and-throat specialist.  Removing the ironhard earwax was a painful process and had my child crying the whole time, so I don’t agree with the Gordenker article below that you don’t need to clean your ears. After only a year from the ear-removal, my daughter’s ears were clogged up again, despite her cleaning her ears regularly.

If you are a bicultural family, chances are your child may have inherited your other Japanese half’s dry ear wax gene, and so more fastidious ear-cleaning may have to be undertaken regularly, since the flaky ear wax congeals and clogs up the ear more easily than wet ear wax.

About 90% of Japanese have dry ear-wax, it is a genetic trait that is characteristic of East Asians, particularly Japanese and Koreans (seeOne gene makes ear wax wet or dryDry ear wax? It’s geneticWet or dry ear wax? and Body odor, Asians and Earwax, Discover Magazine ; Is Your Earwax Wet or Dry? | LiveScience); Earwax map may show the early distributions and origins of Jomon and Yayoi populations (Yomiuri); Riken study — 2 genetic types of Japanese exist)

We don’t use the ear-rake though, but cottonbuds dabbed with a special ear cleaning lotion from the doctor’s or that you can buy over the drugstore counter.



Ear rakes (Japan Times, April 15, 2010)


Dear Alice,
Imagine my horror when I came home one evening to find my Japanese wife bent over our little son, about to thrust a sharpened stick into his ear! I shouted at her to stop, giving her the fright of her life. She protested that she was merely trying to clean the wax out of his ears. I said the wax will come out by itself. “Not Japanese ear wax,” she said. “It’s different.” To which I said something rude that you may print as, “Yeah, right.” Now we’re not speaking. Can you please find out what the heck those sticks are, and if there’s any reason I should let my wife stick one in my kid’s ears?
Andrew R., Oita Prefecture

Dear Andrew,

Before I dig into all that, please hear me out while I provide a little background. In English, the medical term for ear wax is “cerumen”; in Japanese it’s jiko, written with the same characters as mimi aka. Cerumen is a mixture of natural secretions and dead skin cells, and its presence in the outer part of the ear canal is completely normal. It’s there to protect the skin of the ear canal and keep out things you wouldn’t want in your ear, including bacteria, water and cockroaches. (I’m not kidding on the bugs; doctors are regularly called on to extract insects, which seem to be drawn to the ear because it’s warm and dark inside.)

Like you, I’ve heard Japanese people wax on about the putative peculiarities of their ear wax, but I hadn’t put much credence in their claims. I figured humans are humans, and ear wax is ear wax. So it was quite a surprise to learn, when I started researching your question, that there are in fact two distinct types of ear wax — “wet” and “dry.” Which you have depends on your genes.

People in East Asia are most likely to have the dry type, which is gray and flaky. Europeans and Africans almost always have the wet stuff, which is amber-colored and waxy because it contains more lipids. In 2006, a team of Japanese researchers led by Koh-ichiro Yoshiura of Nagasaki University identified the gene that determines which type you get. They also found that the switch of a single unit in the gene makes the difference; if the change deactivates the gene, you end up with the gray, flaky type. The researchers speculate that the mutation was an adaptation to the colder climate in which the ancestors of East Asians lived.

Getting back to your fufugenka (marital dispute), if I assume, for argument’s sake, that you are not Asian, then it’s a safe bet that your ear wax is the wet type. That’s because over 90 percent of Caucasians have the wet type, as do virtually all Africans. Your wife, on the other hand, most likely has dry-type ear wax; about 90 percent of Japanese do. The wet-wax trait is dominant, so if you’re a wettie, your son probably is too.

Regardless of which wax your son has — and here’s where you can say “I told you so!” — your wife has no business poking around in his ear. “In a healthy ear, it is neither necessary nor desirable to remove wax,” Hitome Kobayashi, associate professor of otorhinolaryngology at Showa University School of Medicine, told me. Ears have a self-cleaning mechanism, aided by normal movement of the jaw.

“Furthermore, using an ear pick is very dangerous,” she stressed. “You can’t see inside so you’re working blindly, and if someone bumps your arm the pick could cause serious injuries such as a perforated ear-drum.”

There are times when ear wax has to be removed, but it should be always be handled by a medical professional. “If someone experiences symptoms such as pain, discharge, a sense of fullness or hearing loss, they should go to a doctor who has training and special tools,” Kobayashi said, showing me some nifty ear forceps, and aspiration devices that can suck the wax right out.

It’s hard to convince parents not to clean their children’s ears, according to Kobayashi, because so many Japanese grew up having their ears cleaned by their mothers, and associate it with pleasant feelings of maternal closeness. The ideal mimi soji (ear cleaning) is done with your head in a hizamakura (“lap pillow”), which means cradled comfortably in the lap of someone who loves you, as she kneels on the floor.

My friend Mamoru remembers drifting into a relaxed sleep while his mother cleaned his ears on her lap. His wife refuses to do the same for him, so he occasionally patronizes one of the ear-cleaning salons that have sprung up recently. At his favorite, which charges ¥2,700 for a 30-minute session, an attractive young woman dressed in a kimono will take his head in her lap while she attends to his ears.

Actually, many adults find it pleasurable to clean their own ears. But recreational ear-cleaning, even if it doesn’t lead to outright injury, irritates the ear canal and stimulates the ear to secrete more wax. That in turn leads to obstructions, itching, more cleaning and further irritation. “It’s a vicious cycle,” Kobayashi said. “I’ve seen people who clean one ear so much that the skin thickens, so that even they can tell that the ear canal on that side has become considerably smaller than the other.”

“Japanese people can get fastidious in strange ways,” she said with a sigh.

To watch a sickly fascinating video of dry-type ear wax being removed from an ear, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8LBt7aMMvs&feature=related. It’s like gawking at a car accident — you know you shouldn’t look but it’s hard to stop. Puzzled by something you’ve seen? Send a description, or better yet a photo, to whattheheckjt@yahoo.co.jp or A&E Dept., The Japan Times, 5-4, Shibaura 4-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8071.
Below is a Japan Today article about ear-cleaning salons of Japan …

OCT. 19, 2011

Japan's ear-cleaning salons offer childhood fantasy
Amane (R) also works part time as a masseuseAFP


When 30-year-old Japanese salaryman Takahisa Kobayashi places his head on the lap of an attractive young woman, he is thinking of his mother.

The summer kimono covering her thighs brushes against his face as he lies on the tatami mat floor and briefly looks into her elegantly made-up eyes.

A traditional alcove displays an ornate umbrella from years gone by, soothing away the memories of the garish neon of Tokyo’s streets as 24-year-old Amane talks softly to her customer.

Then she begins scraping wax from his ears with a sharp bamboo stick.

“I’m coming here to relax my mind. Most Japanese associate ear cleaning with their childhood,” said Kobayashi, who manages a consulting company in Tokyo.

As a young child, he recalls sitting on his mother’s lap as she gently removed the daily build-up.

“My wife occasionally cleans my ears but that is different without the traditional Japanese-style room and its tatami matting.”

Kobayashi is one of up to 150 people—most of them men—who come to the flagship parlor of Yamamoto Mimikakiten (Yamamoto Earpick Shop) in Tokyo’s bustling Akihabara district every day.

The parlor, one of 11 in the chain, has 16 rooms and is often fully booked, by customers paying 2,700 yen for a half-hour session.

Amane—who declined to give her real name—wears a light summer kimono, known as a yukata, as she welcomes her clients with a cup of green tea.

She lays their heads gently on her lap and talks to them as she selects the right kind of metal or bamboo pick to remove the particular wax she is trying to excavate.

“Customers say it is healing and comfortable, with some even falling deep asleep and snoring during the session,” said Amane.

Amane, who also works part time as a masseuse, first encountered the chain as a customer, a rare woman among the men who make up the bulk of its clientele.

Store manager Satoru Takahashi says even though only 5% of customers are female, the men who come know that there are limits to the services on offer.

“After the ear-cleaning, the girls blow in the customers’ ears to remove any remaining dust. Lots of guys ask the girls to blow a lot,” he said.

A sign in the reception sets the boundaries: “We are not a salon offering sexual services. We will stop ear cleaning whenever there is an act that offends women.”

But the chain implicitly acknowledges that customers might find favorites among the all-female staff, with regularly updated blogs showing photographs of those working at the salon (www.yamamotomimikaki.com/index.php).

Ear cleaning has boomed in Japan since it was de-regulated six years ago and people without medical training were allowed to begin offering it as a service.

Shops have sprung up all over the larger cities, and while Yamamoto Mimikakiten offers a very straightforward service, other chains cater to more exotic tastes—women wearing maid outfits will spend several hours working on a customer’s ears.

Like the bars where hostesses coyly serve their male customers and laugh obligingly at their jokes, or the coffee shops where mirrored floors tantalisingly reveal untouchable waitresses without underwear, mimikaki occupies the gray area in Japan between innocence and commercial sex.

But the “floating world” can be an altogether darker place, where a regular customer can mutate into a dangerous obsessive.

Two years ago, the mimikaki industry was rocked by the murder of 21-year-old Miho Ejiri, who was stabbed to death alongside her grandmother by a customer whose advances she had rebuffed.

For Amane, her part-time job is a place where she can offer comfort and help to those who come to her, in an environment where she does not feel threatened.

She sees nothing sexual in what she offers; for her it is all about relaxation and making someone’s life better.

“Customers come here to be healed,” she said.

© 2011 AFP

5 thoughts on “Dry ear-wax and why Japanese use mimikaki (ear-rakes) to remove it for their children (and themselves)”

  1. I disagree with the notion that one should “never” clean wax out of your own ear. I am one of the rather rare people of European ethnicity with the dry type of ear wax. As a child I did not clean the wax out of my ear because I was not taught to do so. However, I wasn’t very old when my ears got so blocked with wax that a doctor had to remove it for me. It was excruciating. From that time forward, I have cleaned my ears out myself, if only to avoid another painful visit to the doctor.

    1. I think it is a good thing to clean regularly to avoid buildup, but after the child is oold/skilled enough and has been taught how to do it safely. Children have been known to go deaf due to cleaning accidents.

  2. I agree with the previous poster but I would like to add that one isn’t necessarily “working blindly”. I am a nurse so I am aware of the anatomy of the ear, as anyone with Google could be, and I use a small pen light when cleaning my children’s ears and only “go for” wax that I can reach and has built up at unnecessary levels. There is no harm if you are using a tool like the Japanese do with smooth edges and don’t push around the ear dangerously. I hope this mans wife does clean her sons ears as its a wonderful experience.

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