Blowing your nose in public in Japan is a big no-no, the Japanese would rather let their hooters drip like taps than dare produce a pack of tissues and give their nozzles a good clear out, that would be so rude. Instead, they wear a mouth mask so the snot can flow freely from the nose, into the mouth where it’s quietly swallowed without anyone noticing; or they simply sniff. According to Japanese societal rules, sniffing is very acceptable. I’d never given this much thought until my flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong where I had the misfortune to sit beside a young Japanese man who had a very heavy cold.
Given that the Japanese love wearing mouth masks, particularly on flights when there are lots of nasty germs floating in the dry, recycled air, it was very bad luck to be seated beside a cold-ridden Japanese person without one. We were in a row of three; I was by the window, the sniffer was in the middle and his girlfriend by the aisle. As the plane slowly taxied to the runway, he let out a high-pitched, open-mouthed sneeze straight into the back of the chair in front of him with no attempt whatsoever to cover his mouth. I turned my head away in revulsion and surreptitiously inched my body closer to the window as I imagined all his cold-laden germs floating through the air looking for somewhere warm and welcoming to land. If I’d expelled a sneeze like that (I would have covered my mouth for starters), it would have been followed up with a big, satisfying nose blow. But no, that didn’t happen. Instead he began to sniff, not the quiet, almost apologetic sort of sniffs we know, but long, loud, deep, phlegm filled ones that made me think of sucking up lumps of jelly through a straw. It was revolting, but I was prepared to put up with it as I was sure it wouldn’t go on for too long, sniffing in such an extreme way must be quite sore on the nasal passage. And I was also aware that it’s polite to sniff in Japan and, being an open-minded social anthropology graduate with experience of life in Japan, I prided myself on my tolerant and respectful attitude towards other cultures.
One hour later my shoulders were rigid and tense and my whole body was a snake pit writhing with fury and frustration, my halo of cultural tolerance long gone. I couldn’t focus on the film I was watching because of the incessant sniffing, nor could I read my book or listen to music and even my ear plugs couldn’t block out the noise. He sniffed with the regularity of a snorer, in fact his sniffs sounded just like heavy snores: deep, vibrating and very loud. I started to make huffy puffy sounds and look cross every time he produced an extra loud one, but this had no impact, he was totally oblivious. I looked over at his girlfriend and she looked perfectly content. I couldn’t believe these neanderthal noises could not be bothering her, it seemed unfathomable that anyone could sit for hours and listen to such bodily grossness. It was like torture. I wanted to shout at him to go to the toilet and give his nose a bloody good blow, but I was too, well, polite.
By the time lunch arrived some time later I was almost at the end of my tether, my only hope was that he would stop the obscene noises whilst we ate, but that was a hope too far. As I lifted a fork full of soggy baked chicken, he produced an extra enormous phlegm laden sniff. That was it. Something snapped inside me. I put down my fork and turned to him and said sternly ‘Excuse me, when you finish dinner please could you and your girlfriend swap places. Your sniffing (and I demonstrated it for him) is putting me off watching this film (gesturing at the small screen on the back of the chair in front of me) and eating my food. Thank you’. He looked at me like a startled goldfish. I don’t know if he understood but he must have got the gist from the tone of my voice and the sniffing demonstration. Anyway, I didn’t care, I’d said my piece and I felt elated that I’d got it off my chest. I turned back to my meal and focused purposefully on eating my soggy chicken.
I could hear him muttering to his girlfriend, I didn’t want to even try to understand what he was saying, I was so full of fury, adrenalin and relief. But I tell you what, the sniffing stopped. Hurray! I ate the rest of my meal without any more audible interruptions and gradually I began to feel more normal again. When the lunch trays were taken away I waited patiently for him to swap places with his girlfriend, but that didn’t happen. I guess he hadn’t understood that much of what I’d said. However, the sniffing had stopped and for that I was truly thankful. On the downside though, I had to endure another couple of hours of him continuously wiping his nose (every five seconds or so) with his hand and then wiping the mucus onto the blanket over his lap and into his hair. Occasionally he used his sleeve. This was also completely disgusting, but at least he wasn’t making the hideous noises anymore. Even with my experience of the Japanese approach to colds, I found it extraordinary that this young man had not even one tissue to dab his nose with.
So I wonder to myself, am I intolerant, or was his behaviour extreme even by Japanese standards? The fact that his girlfriend seemed unbothered might suggest it was acceptable, but often Japanese women tolerate their men’s poor behaviour as it is just, well, expected. I’m sure that Japanese man thought I was a brash, ill-mannered ‘gai-jin’ but if nothing else, he will have an inkling now that western women do not consider continuous loud sniffing good manners.
I’ve now got over this extremely traumatic experience and have since spent a very enjoyable two days in Hong Kong, catching up with my old friend James Bragg, going to the horse races at Happy Valley and doing a little spot of necessary retail therapy. Yesterday I flew to Bangkok, a most pleasant flight with no distractions, and I’m now residing in Hua Hin, where I sincerely hope I don’t meet any more heavy sniffers.