Why Do Japanese Kids Carry Handkerchiefs?

by Justin Sevakis,

Darius asks:

Why do school kids carry handkerchiefs with them? I see in a lot of anime, old and new, that kids have a handkerchief in their pocket to wipe their hands while in the bathroom and various other uses, and they seem at a lost of what to do with their wet hands if they forget it. Is that real, like do they not have hand dryers or paper towels in the restrooms?

Actually, that's exactly it. Many public restrooms in Japan do not have paper towels. If you don't carry a handkerchief, you're stuck with wet hands, and have no recourse but to air dry, or to try and subtilely wipe your hands on your pants and hope nobody notices. Handkerchiefs are also essential for wiping away sweat, since Japan in the summer gets notoriously hot and humid. People always carry one, sometimes several. They're not for nose-blowing, however.

Handkerchiefs are the stuff of suit-wearing formality in North America, but in Japan they're a necessity. Nobody leaves home without them, and often a pack of tissues as well (as some Japanese public restrooms don't have toilet paper either). Small tissue packs are easy to find in the city -- often someone is handing them out on busy street corners with paper inserts advertising a (sometimes seedy) local business. But having clean handkerchiefs around is an important sign of how well-put-together you are -- a public equivalent of having clean underwear.

Since they're such a staple of everyday life, having one becomes a part of a daily routine when people leave home in the mornings. Mothers pack them for kids along with their school bags.

As with most objects of everyday importance, they've become a way to express some small amount of individuality. There are lots of designs for young kids, as well as adults -- handkerchiefs come in all sorts of designs and decorations. I found some anime charactet ones listed on import websites as "mini towels". (They're expensive: the website I found had Uta no Prince Sama ones for around ¥1000 each.) But most adults would want simple classy ones that don't call attention to themselves.

The ubiquity of handkerchiefs has also become a part of anime and manga's visual lexicon. It's not uncommon to see an anime character blotting their forehead when they break out in a sweat, of biting one when they're feeling aggressive. Washing and returning a love interest's borrowed handkerchief has become a common event in romance anime as well.

I do wonder sometimes if the burden of carrying all that extra stuff is the reason men's handbags are so much more popular in Asia.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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