Why Japanese Wear Face Masks – The Mask Obsession 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 Wearing A Face 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!

Japanese Mask Brands

With an ever-increasing demand for surgical masks in Japan, there are countless brands offering a fresh take on the product. Here are just a handful of some of the most popular surgical mask brands available in Japan.

Unicharm

Unicharm is known for its comfort – made of extremely soft material, with ear straps that don’t cause irritation. Unicharm offers numerous different varieties of the mask – including scented and colored options for those who want a little something extra from their mask-wearing experience.

These are a coveted choice for those who need to wear their mask for prolonged periods of time – for example, if somebody is wearing their mask for an entire working day due to minor infection. Unicharm also offers a children’s range made of the same soft material.

B.M.

Painfully trendy brand B.M. (which stands for “black mask”, in case you were wondering) offer an alternative to your standard white face mask. As the moniker suggests, these masks are black in color – adding a certain je ne sais quoi to the mask-wearers overall look.

What’s most interesting about this brand though, is how the black tone is achieved. These masks are made using activated charcoal. The charcoal is woven into the fabric and adds an extra layer of filter – with the added benefits of teeth whitening and breath-freshening. Handy!

Pitta Masks

If you find yourself spluttering during hay fever season, look no further than Pitta masks. These masks boast the impressive claim of filtering out 99% of the pollen in the air – music to the ears of allergy sufferers. These masks also have the added bonus of UV protection – meaning users can preserve both their sinuses and their youthful skin. Pitta masks are designed to look sleek and stylish, making them a hit with the fashion-conscious younger generation. If you’re a K-Pop fan, chances are you’re already familiar with the Pitta mask – this is the brand favored by Korean celebrities.

One thing to note about Pitta masks – tests have shown that they don’t offer great protection against infection transmission. The filters in these masks, though small enough to block pollen particles, are too large to block infected droplets. It’s important to say here that the company has never claimed they should be used for infection prevention – they are very much marketed as an anti-allergy mask.

Gonoturn

If you want your mask to stand out in the crowd, look no further than Gonoturn. These cloth mask manufacturers specialize in the novelty market – and their functional garments really catch the eye. You can dress your mouth up as anything from Yoda to Hello Kitty thanks to these innovative designs – but don’t just take my word for it, check out their Instagram for pictures of the products.

Be-Style

The be-Style brand has proved hugely popular amongst the more beauty-conscious Japanese customers, particularly young women. This mask is specifically tailored to give the illusion of a kogao face shape. This is the face shape widely considered the most aesthetically appealing in Japan – a small face, where the jawline tapers into a “v”.

The be-Style essentially acts as a sort of shapewear for faces, creating tapered lines around the jaw and chin areas that add definition to the face. It’s marketed as an anti-allergy mask, rather than anti-infection.

WAC

These are heavy-duty masks, designed to protect against serious pollutants. They are often worn by relief staff after nuclear disasters or similar events. They are (understandably) significantly more expensive than your average mask, and uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. These aren’t the type of masks you would use for day to day wear!

N95

N95 masks are available to purchase in locations around Japan, including SEISHOP (which specializes in disaster prevention). These are another heavy-duty mask, this time designed specifically for infection control. Notably, they were one of the most sought-after masks worldwide during the coronavirus pandemic.

These masks are expensive and uncomfortable for long-term use. They are generally worn by health professionals or those who are entering a high-risk infection situation for a limited time. Again, if you’re looking for something to wear on a daily basis, N95 might not be the most practical option.

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 afterward. 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 convenience 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 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!

Other Reasons To Wear A Mask

Allergies

An extremely common reason for rocking the surgical mask in Japan is allergies. In 2003, a new disposable brand of surgical mask promoted itself as a barrier from pollen and other environmental allergens.

This has led to many allergy sufferers wearing masks while outdoors – you might notice a marked increase of surgical mask use in Japan during hay fever season, along with a suspicious lack of folks with streaming eyes. This is no coincidence!

Vanity

As many of us who have started wearing masks during the pandemic have discovered, a surgical mask is a very easy way of covering imperfections.

When you don’t have time to put on a full face of make-up, you can throw on a mask and a slick of mascara and look every bit as groomed as you would with the full effect. If you’re having a horrendous outbreak of chin acne, you can keep your dirty little secret between yourself and the mask.

Japanese women, it would seem, have been wise to this little trick for generations. Clever stuff!

Fashion

Gone are the days when a mask was just a barrier – with so many options these days (see above section) a mask can be a fashion statement in itself. Take a trip to Harajuku and you’ll see masks in every shape, color, and pattern imaginable – with many designed to fit in with particular subcultures.

Minor Illness

There’s a common misperception that Japanese people wear masks as a kind of germaphobe thing – perhaps because of a sense of paranoia about getting sick when out in public. While some people do wear a mask for illness prevention, it’s predominantly the other way round.

If you’re wearing a mask to stop germs spreading, it’s usually because you yourself have a minor illness or ailment that you don’t want to risk others catching. Japanese cities can be very cramped, with people living, commuting, and working in close quarters – it is a sign of respect and consideration to put a physical barrier between your illness and others around you. Taking sick leave is often frowned upon in Japanese work culture, so hiding away from others while ill tends not to be an option – hence, the mask.

Social Interaction

While Japanese people, in general, wouldn’t be known for striking up conversations with strangers in public places, the mask eliminates some of the demands of social interaction that one might find stressful. When a person wears a mask, you can’t see their facial expression – there is therefore no obligation for them to smile or follow other social cues.

This is a similar principle to putting in your earphones while waiting for the bus – sometimes, you just aren’t in the mood for social interaction.

UV protection

During the summer months, the Japanese are very conscious of how increased UV light can damage the skin. Both Japan and Korea are renowned for their innovative approaches to skincare and proactive anti-aging techniques.

Many surgical masks have UV protective features, providing a shield between the sensitive skin on the face and the damaging rays of the sun.

Warmth

In the colder months, masks can serve a very practical purpose. Adding an extra layer on your mouth and nose keeps your face warm as you battle the cold temperatures – and prevent the embarrassing situation of arriving at your destination with a Rudolph-Esque shiny red nose.

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 in Hindsight

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 protects 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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