“Smell Harassment”: Japan’s Newest Workplace Controversy

“Smell Harassment”: Japan’s Newest Workplace Controversy

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Man offending woman with his bad breath
Picture: プラナ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Wake up, babe - a new form of workplace harassment just dropped in Japan. It may not get you fired, but many on Japanese social media say "smell harassment" lowers productivity and team collaboration.

Have you ever had a coworker who smelled so bad you felt nauseous being near them and couldn’t focus on your work? There’s now a term for that in Japan: smell harassment (スメルハラスメント), often shortened to sume-hara (スメハラ), which refers to making someone uncomfortable through strong offensive smells like body odor and bad breath.

With the rainy season coming up, sume-hara and a general concern over body odor are back in the news. Unlike other overt forms of workplace harassment, there are no legal repercussions for smelling bad at work. However, sume-hara has been known to affect workplace performance and employee well-being, and companies are starting to take notice.

Smells like trouble

Picture: プラナ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

According to Kotobank, the wasei-eigo term smell harassment most likely started circulating around 2010. Perfect Perio, a company behind a periodontal bactericide developed in 2005, ran a survey in which 90% said people at work were concerned about bad breath. Since 2013 sume-hara broadened to include strong smells of perfume and fabric softeners, pets and cigarette smoke, and the smell of the elderly (加齢臭; kareishu).

In a 2018 survey, women were much more likely than men to be bothered by the smells of others. Bad breath was the most bothersome smell across the board, followed by tobacco odor, sweat, perfume and cologne.

Women were also more likely to be more conscious of their own body odor and take measures to maintain good hygiene. Both men and women in younger age groups were more sensitive to the smell of sweat.

As for what respondents did about it, 71.7% chose to endure the smell and not inform the offender. 22.8% indirectly communicated their discomfort.

Taking the indirect approach

Unlike other forms of harassment, the culprit is usually unaware of the offensive smell, However, that doesn’t make it easier to handle.


Hanamura Maria (pseudonym), a part-timer at a supermarket, complained about the odor emitted by a younger male employee. “I can deal with it for now, but the rainy season’s coming up, and even without the suffocating humidity, I feel depressed thinking about how his smell will permeate the air,” she said. “It’s something all of us part-timers talk about.”

But something about the smell made her think it was more than body odor. After some tactful small talk, she discovered the employee not only didn’t hang-dry his laundry outside — a common practice in Japan — but his washing machine was moldy.

One person took to a Yomiuri Shinbun forum for advice after a man in his 40s with a “terrible body odor” transferred to her workplace. “The smell from this man causes headaches and nausea, and people one after the other started going home feeling sick, with some even saying they wanted to quit,” they wrote.

Others chimed in with their own horror stories and solutions. One user gave their smelly perpetrator some deodorant and asked him to use it. Since he was single, no one had ever pointed out his odor before. Fortunately, he began using the deodorant, much to his coworker’s relief.

The corporate approach

Picture: buritora / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Broaching a sensitive issue like this isn’t easy. It’s also tricky when underlying medical conditions such as halitosis could be the cause. And you can’t punish an older person for aging-related body odor — that would be actual harassment!

Workers are often the ones taking on the uncomfortable task of confronting the culprit, but what can companies do about it? Etiquette and communication expert Higuchi Chikako recommends incorporating smell harassment awareness into company training sessions. This includes identifying which smells affect other people and ways to improve personal hygiene.

Educating an entire company this way is more effective than singling out specific employees. “If someone is given the chance to be more aware of odor, it can lead to a resolution even if other employees around them don’t mention it,” she says.

Social insurance consultant Minoda Shingo recommends companies install air purifiers and upgrade ventilation systems to mitigate odors. “Smell harassment can disrupt teamwork and lead to a loss of motivation to work, as well as to job turnover,” he says. “Those who are bothered should speak up, and workplace countermeasures are necessary.”

This year Osaka cosmetics company Mandom included body odor prevention in its seminar for new employees. Kai Corporation has pledged to install state-of-the-art air purifiers to combat odors and improve the work environment.

Sume-hara may not be taken as seriously as other forms of harassment. However, with workers increasingly standing up to all forms of harassment in the workplace, awareness will only continue to grow.

What to read next


自覚ない「スメハラ」で仕事の意欲低下 企業に求められる対策は. Mainichi Shinbun

<スメハラに関する意識調査>あなたもスメハラ加害者に?…気になる”他人のニオイ”1位はアレ. PR Times

洗濯機が「カビ増殖炉」になっていた…!全身生乾き臭社員の匂いの元を突き止めた「パート従業員の嗅覚」. Yahoo! News Japan

職場の「体臭」で頭痛や吐き気続出…スメハラ問題、どう対処する?. Yomiuri Shinbun

スメルハラスメント対策. Kai Corporation

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Alyssa Pearl Fusek

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance writer currently haunting the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies from Willamette University. When she's not writing for Unseen Japan, she's either reading about Japan, writing poetry and fiction, or drinking copious amounts of jasmine green tea. Find her on Bluesky at @apearlwrites.

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