Tropical Troubles: Living with Mold in Okinawa, Japan

I would rather be inundated with these types of molds.  Is she really sitting on the pot??

I would rather be inundated with these types of molds. Is she really sitting on the pot??

 “You can mold a mannerism, but must chisel a character.”  ~ Unknown

“Oooooooh,” our housing agent coos upon seeing the pictures of the pink invader in our master bedroom.  I scroll to the next, and it’s immediately followed by an all-konwing “Ahhhhhhhhhh…”.

At least this mold is a colorful addition to our paper's pattern....

At least this mold is a colorful addition to our paper’s pattern….

“Very bad,” I say, continuing to scroll through the ten-odd photos on my Sony POS camera.  “Much worse since typhoon.”  She acknowledges this last point with an interesting grunt that the Japanese favor as a receiver in conversations:  “Ungh.”

At this point of infestation, our air purifier is probably overwhelmed.

At this point of infestation, our air purifier is probably overwhelmed.

“Wallpaper,” comes her flat reply.

I pause for a moment, expecting this response. We were told when we moved in that our condo bedroom had to be repaired due to mold problems around our sit-in picture window; the military requires such disclosures here on the island.  Mainly because here in Okinawa mold is almost a constant and continuous battle that must be waged without quarter or pause.  It is one of the more interesting but annoying faces of living literally in an ocean-front condo…of Japanese design and construction.


But given the humid history of our particular unit, combined with just having the wallpaper replaced about six or eight weeks ago (due to mold), I thought maybe (and naively hopefully) that there might be a better and more permanent fix for our particular predicament.  In other words, maybe they should try treating the disease rather than the symptoms!

I think about my words carefully now. I do not want to be so much trouble that our lease will not be renewed, but I also want to avoid health issues related to living with…or more to the point, breathing In mold spores.  Our housing agency recently told a friend of ours, who inquired about a vacate unit on our floor, that they are starting to rent to Japanese since the Americans have so much trouble with mold. Maybe it’s our culture of fear, or maybe the Japanese are just heartier people, but no one should have co-habitat with a fungus…among us.


“Uh…problem…in wall,” I start slowly and warily, dealing concurrently with both the mold and the language barrier between us.

“Hai!” comes her excited reply in perfect synch with an acknowledging head nod.

But nothing more.

“Uh, open wall and fix?” I gently urge.

“Hai, new wallpaper,” comes the same reply….

Step 2:  thoroughly clean once the paper is gone (Step 1).

Step 2: thoroughly clean once the paper is gone (Step 1).

Fine.  New wallpaper it is.  Here’s our of attack in what appears to be this losing biological warfare:  renew our lease in August (when it is up for renewal) for another year, and then just have the paper replaced every time the pink-spotted invader makes an appearance. Surely sooner or latter the owner and/or our housing agency will get the message.  Or at least figure out that the time and materials spent on new wallpaper actually will start to cost more than an actual, permanent fix.  I have previously touched on the particular Japanese fetish with wallpaper; see a write-up about the quirkiness of our condo.  Heck, we even have it – “wall” paper – on our ceiling.  Now I know why….


For us, however, this whole ordeal is quite an inconvenience.  First, the infected paper comes down, followed almost immediately by the strong order of mildew. Next, the Japanese spray and scrub down the exposed drywall with a very popular chemical solution sold in droves in their DIY stores, which, by my uncalibrated smell-o-meter, is at least 50% bleach, and 50% equally deadly “stuff.” I can only imagine the warnings and MSDS that accompany this stuff if sold in at home….  So the condo smells as strongly as I imagine a disinfected African Ebola ward would.

This Chemical should require some increased level of MOPP!

This Chemical should require some increased level of MOPP!

The walls remain bare while they dry, which means at least four days of camping and sleeping in our living room while the AC blasts our bedroom, windows open, bathroom exhaust fan on, and air intake handler running on high.  We literally brought too much schtick with us to have a guest room, and besides, we only have one bed at present.  The abusive smell slowly trails off with each passing day, and the walls dry before our very eyes.  This time around, in an effort to avoid having to do this again in two months, I actually caulked the screws, holes, old repairs, and seams in the drywall, all of which were never taped, mudded or sealed properly in the first place.  For a domicile on the waterfront, there certainly isn’t a lot of attention paid to waterproofing….

I was not shy with the caulking.

I was not shy with the caulking.

So it’s Saturday as I write.  The paper came down this past Thursday afternoon, and this coming Monday we get our new wallpaper. Followed necessarily by a deep cleaning of the bedroom and a change of bedding.  But then there’s the bane of my existence as a domestic engineer:  the dreaded dusting of all our bedroom’s horizontal surfaces!

Old and poor patches, evidence of leaks in the past.

Old and poor patches, evidence of leaks in the past.

dampness-fig2dampness-fig1So hopefully in a mere 48-odd hours this round of tropical troubles will be over.  Mold here is viewed as a by-product of the environment, as opposed to something that is harmful and which can be defeated at the start by better engineering and construction practices.  In other words, I lived on the Inter-coastal Waterway in Florida for five years, and mold wasn’t even something I ever remotely worried about.  While the Japanese seem rather dismissive of the health impacts of mold and mildew, there is pretty ding-dang clear evidence that either (or both) increase the risk of respiratory illness, particular in those with pre-existing conditions (like asthma), and for the very young and very old.


On the other hand, the structures here are well-engineered against earthquakes and typhoons, both of which we have uncomfortably experienced first-hand and without issue.  So maybe, just maybe, we should accept the new wallpaper graciously.

At least we're not dealing with this!

At least we’re not dealing with this!

My lungs and throat, however, compel the fight against the marauding mold.  Our tactical victories may continue, but stay tuned for any strategic surprises later this summer and fall.

7 thoughts on “Tropical Troubles: Living with Mold in Okinawa, Japan

  1. One thing I’ve been told by different architects here… Don’t put wallpaper on exterior walls because it can trap moisture and foster mold (and you can’t see it because it is hidden by the wallpaper). I guess the japanese don’t follow this guidance.

    • Yes, EXACTLY. This is especially true if you don’t even try and seal the drywall. Open seams, unsealed screws, raw surfaces…. 2nd time for paper in the bedroom and the typhoon season is yet to get into full swing. We’ll see how this goes.

  2. Wow. Just wow. And the last photo. Good thing it’s not yours. I can just imagine but wanting to breathe in these kind of situations.

    • It’s been an ordeal. On top of that, I had a mysterious illness for over 2 months that I have to think is connected to is mold problem. That issue has turned rather serious for me, and although the Docs claim there is no connection, the timing seems to indicate no mere coincidence. Living with mold is a much more common thing for the Japanese and Okinawans here, but then again if you are raised around it, your body’s systems have a chance to acclimate. Coming from America it’s a totally different story. I seem to be much more sensitive than my wife; I experience throat issues and swollen lymph nodes in my neck routinely. Things are better now since all the repairs have been made, AND since we got a HEPA air purifier for the bedroom. Our new wallpaper is more robust and supposed to be mold/mildew resistant. I’m hoping to that my sealing of the dry wall will help. So far, so good: we had our first tropical storm since repairs, and while water came in through the window where it opens, nothing seems to be in the walls. Thanks for the Far East Fly-By!! Cheers, Kevin.

      • Goodness, that’s terrible. I’ve only experienced mold problems once here in Canada, but once I complained, they’ve been resolved swiftly. That’s true, as well. Since the Japanese encounter molds on a fairly regular basis, they must have developed some kind of immunity, which foreigners haven’t acquired yet.

        I hope that you resolve that issue as quickly as possible. Trust your own instincts. I trust my own more than a doctor’s.

        Oh, well. Hope you feel better soon. Cheers!

  3. Pingback: Japan, You’re Doing it Wrong! (Sometimes) | Far East Fling

  4. Don’t keep your AC super high when it’s super hot outside. What makes mold is the moisture.
    Think about pour cold beer in a glass. Dew condensation. That moisture on out side of glass is in your wall paper. Keep temp around 25 not lowest 16. Open all the windows and change the air once a day. Use dehumidifier when times like raining or after typhoon. Wipe off the windows if they are wet from inside.
    “Americans have so much trouble with mold” is understandable for me because local knows how to avoid and never keep AC high all the time so has not so much trouble with it. And Don’t choose old buildings to live. They often has hidden crack, water leaks or loose window closure that brings moisture in the house.

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