Call them myths, wive’s tales, pseudoscience, or just plain bullshit. Every country has beliefs that fly in the face of science. Take the US, with their anti-vaxxers, climate deniers and creationists. Some commonly held beliefs are less insidious, and even seem credible. For example, if you read in a poorly lit room you will go blind. You were probably a small child the first time you were told that and for some people, this may be the first time to hear that it is not true. In that case you heard it here first folks: it is not true. Things that westerners grew up believing might be seen as silly superstition in other parts of the world. Does masturbation really cause hairy palms? Can your eyes really stick that way when you cross them for too long? Of course not…at least I hope not. Likewise there are many commonly held beliefs in Japan that to my mind at least, are laughably ridiculous. Here are a few that just don’t seem to go away.
1. Japanese intestines are several meters longer than European intestines
The reasoning behind this is that Japanese society was traditionally agrarian, and in particular the Japanese diet consisted of mostly rice, whereas the European diet was more meat-based. This has led to a second false conclusion that extra intestinal length is the reason why so many Japanese women suffer from constipation – a very common ailment in Japan. Luckily there are doctors and scientists who are willing to stick a camera up thousands of asses to solve the matter once and for all.
A 1995 study published in The International Journal of Colo-rectal Disease revealed no discernible difference in intestinal length between Caucasian Americans and Asians. Of course this study does not necessarily single out Japanese poop-pipes, which is why another study was carried out by Dr. Koichi Nagata, a gastroenterologist from Kameda Medical center along with a team of 8 other doctors from around Japan. They published their findings in The Journal of Japan Gastroenterological Endoscopy Society (Nihon Shoukaki Naisikyou Gakkai Zasshi) and not only confirmed that there was no substantial difference, but in fact that American intestines were longer on average than Japanese intestines.
This begs the question of why Japanese women suffer so much from constipation. The truth is that American women reported similar constipation rates as Japanese women. Constipation in women is often caused by progesterone – a hormone that helps pregnant women retain water and nutrition by – you guessed it – blocking up the pipes.
2. ABO blood types determines personality traits
In Japanese society blood types are believed to determine things like personality and romantic compatibility. On the surface, it seems similar to horoscopes in the West, but blood typology is much more pervasive. It can be the basis for choosing a spouse, hiring employees, and was even used to determine individual training programs for each member of the 2008 Olympic softball team. In a 2008 article in the Guardian, Justin McCurry wrote that “It has been blamed for bullying among kindergarten children, denying jobs to otherwise ideal candidates and ending happy relationships, all because of an imagined haematic mismatch.”
To see where it all began requires a trip back to 1927, when Takeji Furukawa published a paper titled “The Study of Temperament Through Blood Type” in the journal Psychological Research. Although Furukawa lacked credentials and his research failed to meet statistical requirements, his results became extremely popular. This is most likely because his research was race motivated. His article was published shortly after the Japanese takeover of Formosa, now known as Taiwan. The subsequent rebellion by the native Formosans was credited to the high rate (41%) of people with type O blood, compared to the peaceful Ainu of whom only 24% carried O type blood.
After Word War II, Furukawa’s research disappeared into obscurity, until the 1970s, when Masahiko Nomi a journalist with no medical background whatsoever, used it as the basis for several bestseller books. Nomi and his pop-medical books are probably the main reason the myth still exists to this day, despite being refuted by most doctors and scientists.
In 2014, Kengo Nawata debunked this theory after conducting a study of 10,000 people in the US and Japan. According to his research, only 0.3% of the variation could be explained by blood type. So then why do so many Japanese people swear by it? According to Shigeyuki Yamaoka of Shotoku University, it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, caused by TV which influences how Japanese people choose to self-identify. He found that people who knew about blood typology were much more likely to identify with the blood group they belong to. People who had never heard of blood typology had significantly less correlation between blood type and personality traits. My question is, what about people with rare blood types like Chimera?
3. Japan is the only country in the world with 4 distinct seasons
The first time somebody asked me if other countries had seasons, my first thought was to ask if they had graduated the 4th grade. Hadn’t they seen Hollywood films with snowy winters, falling autumn leaves, and blistering hot summers? To some minds in Japan, Canada is always snowy, South America is always hot, and cherry blossoms only bloom in Japan.
These beliefs got their start in the Meiji period about 120 years ago, and unfortunately are tinged with a fair amount of nationalism and racism. In 1894, just after the outbreak of the first Sino-Japanese War, author and editor Shigetaka Shiga wrote a book called Japanese Environmental Theory (Nihon Fūkei Ron). In this book he compared the scenery of China, Korea and Japan and concluded that the Japanese had much more appreciation for the changing of the seasons, which gave them a higher moral character. Likely inspired by this work, just before the outset of World War II, a philosopher named Tetsuro Watatsuji published a book called Climate and Culture: A Philosophical Study (Fūdo) in which he claimed that climate affects humans understanding of self, and as a result all literature, art, and religion is directly related to a nation’s climate. Naturally, Japan’s climate being the only one with 4 distinct seasons, made Japanese people the most reasonable and balanced on the planet. I don’t even need to go into the science of why this belief is utter bullshit.
4. If you go to sleep with the fan on, you will die
Although this belief is much more common in Korea, it still has quite a foothold in Japan as well. There are two supposed reasons why this might happen. The first is hypothermia. Our metabolism slows down at night, which reduces our body temperature. Adding to that the cooling effect of the fan and the body temperature can drop so low as to cause hypothermia. In actuality fans do not significantly reduce body temperatures at all. The fans merely create a cooling sensation as sweat evaporates on our skin, and convection caused by the fan allows body heat to rise away from us. According to Gord Giesbrecht, a professor of thermophysiology at Manitoba University, temperatures would have to fall 8-10℃ to cause hypothermia. Giesbrecht went on to say, “We’ve got people lying in snowbanks overnight here in Winnipeg and they survive.”
Another proposed cause of fan death is Asphyxiation through either oxygen depletion, or carbon dioxide poisoning. This notion relies on the bogus notion that a fan will cause an air current in the room forcing all the O2 to the top of the room and all the heavier CO2 to the bottom. The truth is that if anything, a fan will actually circulate the air better but it would take something much stronger and more specialized to separate the mixture of air particles.
A 2013 report by Ken Jennings speculated that this whole myth may have actually been started intentionally by the government in Korea. During a massive energy crisis in the 1970s, it has been suggested that perhaps the big shots in Seoul spread this panic as a way to cut down on energy consumption at night. Of course this is merely speculation, and the last thing we want to do is propagate another myth!
Due to the proximity to Korea, the rumors quickly spread to Japan as well. The first reports were published in 1972 in the Mainichi Shinbun, and again several more times throughout the 70s and 80s by a reporter named Toyoshi Morita. Although this particular myth has died down quite a bit since the 1980s, there are still quite a few people in Japan who believe it to be true.
5. Coca Cola will melt your bones
This myth is actually not unique to Japan. It was whispered about for years in the West without picking up much momentum until the internet – that shining beacon of bullshit – spread the notion far and wide. You have likely seen chain emails and viral Facebook posts claiming that Coca Cola contains corrosive acids that can dissolve nails, and eat a hole through your stomach lining. What makes this myth unique to Japan is the focus on it specifically deteriorating your bones. It doesn’t take biologist to realize that cola never once touches your bones on its way through the body. It is true that all carbonated drinks contain carbonic acid, and Coca Cola in particular also contains citric acid, and phosphoric acid. These acids are blamed for melting bones and teeth, but you’ll notice there is no mention in any of the rumors about concentration of said acids. Simply put, there is much more acid in orange juice than in cola, and neither are nearly as strong as the acids already used by the body for digestion. Snopes has an excellent section dedicated to Coca Cola myths which show that these acids are so diluted they couldn’t possibly melt bones. But there may be some actual science behind this one. Although the amounts of phosphoric acid are not enough to melt bones, it may be enough to leech valuable calcium away from them. When these acids are being digested, they often bond with nutrients such as calcium and zinc, thereby robbing the bones of their much needed calcium. What is more, calcium is actually critically important to maintain the pH balance in our blood. Consuming lots of acids means taking away calcium from other places in the body – namely, our bones.
It could be argued then that drinking cola does in fact ‘melt’ bones, in a manner of speaking. But one would have to stretch the meaning of melting, to mean “slowly and indirectly softening over several decades.” Imagine the Wicked Witch of the West shouting that at Dorothy as she shrivels into a puddle. “I’m slowly softening…! What a world!”