Lush writer Ayako Nishimiya (西宮 彩子) discusses exactly why gargling is at the heart of hygiene routines in Japanese culture and gives her tips and tricks for the freshest breath.
The Japanese are often thought of as sticklers for hygiene, and this cultural emphasis on cleanliness is thought to originate partly from the influence of ancient Shinto custom. Shinto suggests that as many as eight million deities exist in everyday objects and that these deities hate impurity - placing importance on personal hygiene in Japanese society. Since this ritual cleansing also had hygienic benefits, such as preventing the spread of illness and infectious diseases, the Shinto concept of cleanliness has since become custom. For example, nowadays showering may be more prevalent, but for centuries the Japanese burned firewood to heat water for baths. Many people still bathe daily today.
Another aspect of this cleanliness is gargling. Yes – that “gurgle gurgle gurgle… spit!” If you grew up in Japan, it is likely that your mother would say something like “When you come home, the first thing you must do is wash your hands and gargle!” This custom is thought to have been prevalent in Japan since the Heian period (approximately 794 to 1185 AD), and there are two main types of gargling.
This involves taking some water into the mouth, closing it, then swishing it around, with your cheeks puffing in and out rapidly, to cleanse the inside of the mouth. This is often done after eating or brushing your teeth, and helps to get rid of lingering food particles or toothpaste remaining in your mouth. By washing your mouth out, the inside of the mouth is kept clean, preventing cavities.
This involves taking some water into the mouth, then facing upwards with the mouth open and releasing air, making a gurgling noise, and cleaning the throat. This type of gargling is done after being outside, or when your throat feels dry, and helps to clear the throat of any dust particles or viruses that might have gotten inside. By rinsing the throat with water, this gargling can also help prevent colds.
As pollen allergies and hay fever increase, there are some people who have been doing “nose gargling” as well. This involves taking water into the nose to rinse away pollen particles, and spitting the water out again through the mouth. Apparently, because the water taken in through the nose also passes out through the throat, this also helps to wash away pollen particles in the throat at the same time, so it can be used as a “set” with garagara gargling.
So, even though we say “gargling,” this encompasses a few different practices. However, we might say that any type of gargling basically boils down to one main goal: washing and rinsing something away for health purposes.
“When you come home, the first thing you must do is wash your hands and gargle!” That line that our mothers are always saying is actually something they say to mind our health, so they’re really words of love, aren’t they?
When you say “gargling,” in Japan it’s garagara gargling that tends to first come to mind, but this gargling is actually a very particular custom unique to Japan, so people coming from abroad must see it as a strange and interesting sight. In other countries, people sometimes gargle to relieve a sore throat, but the use of gargling as a technique to prevent illness and maintain the cleanliness of the throat on an everyday basis isn’t often seen. Brushing teeth and maintaining the cleanliness of the mouth is a universal custom, but extending that sense of hygiene into the throat may well be a uniquely Japanese habit.
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