One cultural phenomenon that is immediately obvious to visitors or immigrants to Japan is the popularity of wearing surgical masks. You can see them everywhere, on all kinds of people (any gender, age, or status). I found it disorienting when I first visited, but by now, I don’t even really notice and wear a mask myself from time to time.

This article on Japan Today gives a bit of background and explanation. Apparently mask-wearing became extremely popular beginning in 2003 due to the promotion of new types of non-woven masks.

From articles I’ve read as well as my own observations and conversations, some of the reasons for wearing masks are thus:

  • Politeness toward others when sick and/or fear of becoming sick, which seems valid given the crowded nature of Japanese cities and especially public transit
  • Reducing hay fever symptoms (I can vouch for this; I think it helps)
  • Keeping your face warmer on cold days
  • Hiding one’s non-made-up face when running a quick errand (sheesh)
  • Sun protection, maybe? Japanese women are very much into protecting themselves from the sun
  • Pure aesthetics, e.g., for youth gang subcultures (!)
  • An attempt at social isolation (according to the article; I’m skeptical about how common this is)

Masks come in many different models and even different colours, although I rarely see any other than white. I particularly like one made for wearing at night when you have a cold, with moistened inserts that you put in the front to help with breathing.

Do masks actually prevent the spread of disease? Apparently the jury is out on that and at this point, it doesn’t really matter given the ingrained popularity.


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