Why Do Japanese Wear Surgical Face Masks? The Mask Phenomenon Explained

by Jacob Harris
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First-time visitors to Japan may be confused, or even quite alarmed to see so many people wearing face masks in public. Is there something in the air? A virus or worse, poisonous gas? Not necessarily.

Most people use face masks to protect themselves from spreading or catching an illness. In Japan, the Japanese put a big emphasis on not being a bother to others, and this includes sneezing on or near others. In cities, this is especially common because crowded trains are the normal method of transportation. During the spring and early summer periods, allergies are especially bad and masks are worn more commonly.

Read on and be relieved to find out about the many unexpected uses Japanese people have for this protective device that gradually became a regular part of Japanese everyday life

History of the Mask

It is said that this entire culture of wearing masks can be traced way back to 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic, the deadliest in history, which could be considered as Japan’s most serious peacetime disaster in terms of the number of people who died from the disease. 

Given that this happened quite a while ago, the exact death toll isn’t clearly known, but is estimated to be in the range of 257,000 to 481,000 fatalities. To put things in context, the Kanto earthquake claimed around 140,000 lives. Needless to say, the Spanish flu had a devastating effect on Japan and the nature of this highly contagious disease prompted the Japanese public to wear face masks, as a matter of life and death.

Although we have drugs, antivirals, and vaccines to combat the flu in this day and age, the Japanese people have continued to wear masks as a matter of precaution and the culture of doing so developed from that point onwards. In addition to the trauma caused by the Spanish flu, we should also remember that Japan, and Tokyo in particular, is a very densely-populated city.

Imagine being crammed into a single city with 13.932 million other people. That’s around 6,158 persons per square kilometer, and it’s a reality that Tokyo residents are living out every day. With so many people packed into one area, you’re definitely at a higher risk of catching something. The mask serves as a physical protective barrier from any illness-causing bacteria that come from spit, sneezes, mucus, germs, or any of those nasty things that we may come in contact with throughout our daily lives. I mean, just the thought of breathing in a sick stranger’s infected sneeze could awake anyone’s inner germaphobe and makes them want to immediately run out and buy a box of face mask.

Dust, Pollen, and Air Pollution

Believe it or not, kafunshō (花粉所) or hay fever is a big thing in Japan and around one-fourth of the population suffers from it. The biggest culprits are the sugi (杉) or Japanese cedar tree and hinoki (檜) or Japanese cypress, but there are over 60 other plants and trees that are potential allergens too. What’s interesting is that hay fever wasn’t really a domestic problem until the 1960s when the government pushed for reforestation policies following World War II, but I guess it’s a small price to pay for fresher air and greener surroundings!

Hay fever typically begins at around January to February and sufferers have it the worst towards March. Unfortunately, symptoms can stretch out until September, and that’s a lot of sneezing and tissue paper! But here is where non-woven masks, as we’ve learned about earlier, can come in handy, especially in the springtime. Although they don’t provide a total cure for hay fever, wearing a mask can filter out these fairly large particles and can considerably alleviate the allergic symptoms.

Hay fever isn’t the only seasonal allergy masks can protect us from, there’s also the yellow dust or Asian dust, Asthma, and all sorts of air pollution. Actually, they have masks specifically created for this purpose. Particulate matter 2.5 or PM 2.5 is a fancy name for dust pollution that’s small enough (2.5 micrometers) to be inhaled, stay in your body and cause some lung complications. While this isn’t really a big issue in Japan, it’s become increasingly problematic because of the yellow dust from China (and Mongolia) blowing into the country.

Ironically, the main cause of yellow dust is deforestation and cutting too many trees, but hay fever is still way better than yellow dust! Trees give us so much and having the sniffles isn’t too bad in the greater scheme of things. Besides, the masks help out a lot. The morning news in Japan actually has a daily PM 2.5 rating so you know when it’s best to bring out these hardworking masks.

Dry Air and Foul Odors

After visiting Japan, this culture of wearing face masks can rub off on you and the second-best place to use one outside Japan would be in an airplane. The lack of good circulation can make the air in the airplane rather dry and it can be quite irritating to the sinuses and throat. Also, things can get quite stuffy and a mask can help keep any unpleasant odors at bay. If you sleep with an open mouth, you could also use a mask to cover it and keep anything from crawling into it! A mask is also great for privacy if you wish to not be disturbed during long flights.

Let’s be honest, being in cramped public spaces like the subway or a crowded bus can leave you exposed to some funky smells and no one wants to cover their noses and possibly offend anyone. These smells can get quite out of hand especially during Golden Week, cherry blossom season, or even the daily rush hour. A mask can be a very convenient barrier of protection from stuff like body odor, cigarette, or ‘drunk people’ smells for people with especially sensitive noses.

Recent environmental disasters such as the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, the 2011 magnitude 9.0 earthquake, and the Fukushima radiation leak have also contributed to the massive surge in sales during the past few years. Can you believe that over 5.3 billion masks were produced in Japan in 2017 alone? That’s a whole lot of masks!

Masks For Warmth

Japan’s winters can be especially cold and there aren’t really a lot of options for things to wear to keep your face warm aside from ski masks or those full knitted masks with holes for your eyes and mouth. Ski masks look a bit out of place outside ski slopes and the knitted masks aren’t the most fashionable, so face masks are here to the rescue again! Now you might be thinking that these masks are too thin to offer any sort of warmth, but they work by allowing your own breath to warm your face up. I can tell you that it works and can be really helpful on a chilly day!

A Mask’s Definition

No one enjoys having a huge pimple or wound on their face. Japanese women and men alike use masks to literally mask these blemishes, which can be very distracting. People who regularly put on makeup wear masks whenever they want to go makeup-free and are too shy or uncomfortable to expose their bare faces. Putting on makeup is an art and can take a while to apply and to remove afterwards. People throw on a mask when aren’t feeling too extra to be bothered with this tedious task and are just taking a quick trip to the convenient store or running an errand. It’s a quick fix that allows the face to rest and breathe a little.

A clean-shaven face is also considered proper etiquette in the workplace and a mask can hide any stubble during those times when guys were too busy to shave or if they just simply forgot to do so!

Masks are also lifesavers for Japanese celebrities so they can go through their day like a ‘regular’ person. With it, they are able to go to a public place without being recognized, allowing them to have a semblance of a regular life.

Kaori Ozawa, more popularly known as Zawachin, flips this idea of disguise on its head and rose to makeup goddess status with her monomane meiku (imitation makeup). With the power of makeup, she transforms herself into celebrities of all genders and ethnicities. What sets her apart, though, is that she does all her celebrity impressions with a face mask on and only focuses on the upper half of the face (mainly the eyes and the hair). Her viral fame even led to her having her own line of scented face masks! Google her or check out her Instagram account and be amazed by her transformations!

Social Separation

It’s no secret that the Japanese lean more towards being shy and reserved and they aren’t the most extroverted people. They are, on the other hand, highly creative and resourceful, to the point that they’ve turned face masks into a means to add a measure of separation between themselves and the people around them. They put others first, more often than not, and are overly conscious of how they are perceived all the time. Placing this much pressure on yourself on a regular basis definitely sounds exhausting and having a mask on makes it more difficult for other people to approach you, lessening opportunities for direct interaction. To add to that, smartphones and the internet have made people more accustomed to indirect forms of communication like text messaging, emails, and social media. Given all these factors, could you really blame them for wanting to be invisible once in a while?

Practical to Fashion

Masks have gradually become a part of Japanese culture. An old 2011 survey conducted by News Post Seven, with 100 respondents, learned that a quarter of the people interviewed wear face masks for purely aesthetic reasons, and not for any of the other reasons we’ve covered so far. Masks have been so deeply ingrained into Japanese daily life that they’ve sort of become fashionable. With so many different colors and designs to choose from, they can give off a mysterious vibe and are almost like an accessory that adds an unexpected element to a look. They’ve become so popular that they have their own subculture. Look up ‘masuku bijin’, which means beautiful masked girl to realize how big of a deal it actually is. They say the main reason for this is because the masks divert people’s attention to the eyes and can give the illusion of a smaller face, which is considered beautiful, as they believe it creates a more proportional appearance.

Gang Affiliation

No, this isn’t clickbait and it’s 100% true! I didn’t believe it myself, but Google bōsōzoku (which translates to ‘running out-of-control tribe’… because they’re a crazy biker gang) to see everything for yourself. They’ve actually become fashion icons in their own right and their tokkō-fuku (特攻服), special attack—boiler suits, leather military jackets adorned with kanji slogans paired with baggy pants and tall boots—have become known as their gang uniform. Surgical masks are their accessories of choice, which is quite a practical move if you think about it because they’re able to conceal their identities while blending into the crowd, not that you should be doing the same thing, though!

Masks have come a long way from being a simple white sheet of fabric with two stretchy pieces of garter and they’re a completely different animal from what the rest of the world knows them to be. If you do find yourself getting into the whole mask-wearing culture, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover that there’s a mask for every taste, every scent, and, quite possibly, every use for a mask you can imagine. They’ve got your entry-level masks with cute designs and popular cartoon characters; masks infused with antimicrobials like activated charcoal that supposedly kill bacteria on the surface; masks that help you breathe better as you sleep; masks that help with a clogged nose or a cold; fruity, floral, and breath mint-scented masks and even masks that moisturize your face!

If you think about it, face masks are kind of like sunglasses or eyeglasses, but for the lower half of your face. While the latter protect you from UV rays or help you see things more clearly, there’s much more to them than these practical uses. So, the next time you visit a Japanese convenience store, personal care shop, or Don Quijote, don’t miss out on grabbing some of these protective, sometimes wacky, but always interesting products!

Wearing A Mask This Year Isn't The Only Thing You Can Start Doing

This year has us doing things we are not used to, so why stop now? Break those barriers and start learning Japanese through our recommended Online Courses.

If you think about it, face masks are kind of like sunglasses or eyeglasses, but for the lower half of your face. While the latter protect you from UV rays or help you see things more clearly, there’s much more to them than these practical uses. So, the next time you visit a Japanese convenience store, personal care shop, or Don Quijote, don’t miss out on grabbing some of these protective, sometimes wacky, but always interesting products!

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