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Why Does Anime Often Feature Ear Cleaning?

by Justin Sevakis,

Amy asked:

This is a weird question. Do you know why so many anime feature ear cleaning? (And why it's considered romantic? The intimacy of the gesture?) Is this a common Japanese cultural thing or does anime exaggerate it? Don't doctors here say it's potentially damaging to clean your ears like that?

Some questions I feel like I've been waiting all my life for someone to ask me. This is one of them.

Different races of people often have very subtle physiological differences between them, apart from things like skin and hair color/texture. Ear wax is one of those things. I've had several otolaryngologists (that's ear, nose and throat doctors) tell me that most Asian people have a different texture of earwax from other races.

The science behind this further clarifies these differences. White and black people tend to have yellow, sticky earwax with a strong smell, while 90% of Asians and Native Americans have white, dry earwax with little to no odor. There's a compound called cerumen extra lipids in non-Asian earwax that makes it yellow, viscous, and smelly. It turns out this is a side-effect of a genetic mutation that occurred around 2000 40,000 years ago. Japanese scientists identified the gene in 2006. This mutation also affects under-arm body odor: most Asians don't attract the bacteria that causes the odor.

Since our earwax is so dry (I'm only half Asian, but I appear to have gotten this gene), globs of it often become stuck in our ear canals, which can affect your hearing. Over-the-counter ear drops don't tend to work well in removing it, so stubborn ear wax globs must be manually extracted. It's a thing, and for some people it's a bigger problem than others. Personally, I go to my doctor's office and have them use a syringe and warm water to flush it out, like a high-colonic for my head.

But I'm an adult and live alone. In most Asian countries, people use an ear pick, which is a small tool that looks like a very tiny spoon on the end of a stick, made either with metal or bamboo. Sometimes it's a wire loop instead of a spoon. Using this tool, every month or however often it's needed, a family member or (very) close friend will have you lay your head on their lap while they dig for treasure. Done violently, this can cause damage; it's pretty easy to puncture or bruise the eardrum if you're not careful. But if you go slowly and gently, you can get the job done without causing discomfort.

Since having your ears cleaned like this is a quiet moment of intimate care, it's become a symbol of maternal love, especially in Japan. The sensation of laying with your head in a woman's lap as she cleans your ears is one often associated with childhood, unconditional love, and being cared for. It's a moment of peace. This moment is usually recreated in anime with that feeling in mind. Additionally, the sort of Japanese businesses that cater to lonely men often offer this as a service.

Public service announcement: no matter what kind of earwax you have, do NOT use a Q-tip. It can push earwax in further and cause some real damage in there. Use eardrops with cotton balls, or have your ears irrigated by a doctor.

Thanks for forums member Blanchimont for some corrections.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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