It was a normal enough class of eight women, sometime in 2006. I think we were practicing something like adverbs of frequency (“How often do you walk your dog?” / “Rarely”). Students were in pairs, asking each other questions and a few follow-ups. I made the rounds, listening, correcting. One woman asked her partner, “How often do you eat dinner with your whole family?” Her partner replied, “Well, quite often with my mother or sister, but almost never with my father.” Overtime? Oh, no, he’s retired, she replied. “My sister and I just don’t care for his Old Man Smell. We can’t enjoy our dinner. Go away, Dad, we say – you’ve got Old Man Smell.”
I was quietly mortified. I had drunk some particularly strong coffee that morning and had forgotten to buy some breath mints before class. I thought her discussion partner would be embarrassed by the topic – not a bit of it. She joined in with a story about her grandfather, and used imagery like (after consulting a dictionary) “musty towels.”
In fact, when I brought the class together and asked them what were some interesting things their partners had told them, the story of Old Man Smell was the first one told. The class response? “Eww, Old Man Smell!”; “Terrible isn’t it?”; “I think my older brother’s getting it,” and so on. I became very paranoid at this stage, and soon moved on to everyone’s favourite – “How often does your partner go shopping?” This took us right through until lunchtime.
I think I knew what they meant. The salaryman of a certain age drinks harsh, bitter coffee, eats garlicky food washed down with booze when he goes out with a client or his workmates, and smokes like a crematorium chimney wherever he can manage it (nothing like a face full of cigarette smoke when you’ve just exited a refreshing hot spring). There’s always something inclement coming through his pores or past his unbrushed teeth. The nicotine-reeking business suit is too hot – sweat brings last night’s whiskey out through the pores. A lot of it, then, would be the fault of his lifestyle – forty years of that would make anyone fragrant.
That sort of loose talk sinks ships, though. It implies that the system which produces such sad specimens is somehow to blame. No, this society can’t be wrong. It must be something else. Enter Shiseido, the cosmetics company. Some years ago, they isolated the “substance” which they claim causes stronger body odour in people over 40. As I’m about to turn 45, I was understandably overjoyed to read this (Read about it here). So it can’t be prevented (faces saved!). The only solution is to buy Shiseido’s line of products specially designed for the socially-conscious stinky geezer.
So do they? Maybe in Tokyo (where these stories are invariably filed), but not in Osaka. Here, the old guys are still oblivious. Osaka’s still a man’s world – until, of course, he comes home and his daughters won’t eat with him anymore.