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The Mask Behind the Mask Culture in Japan

Japan's love affair with wearing the germ mask gives this author mixed feelings.

By 6 min read

For the last two years, I’ve visited my nearby Family Mart to pick up bottled water and my other convenience store needs. I often pay the same worker, but I’ve never seen his face — only his eyes and forehead.

For the last year, I’ve taught at a university in Tokyo. In that time, I’ve had several students who wore white masks every single day of class. Never once did they remove it.

A lot has been written regarding mask use in Japan, but it was when I heard that a few employers were beginning to require their workers to wear the mask that I started to feel this should be addressed. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me, however, was when I started seeing different colors and designs. Seeing these face coverings — and what seems to be an over-saturation of their use — upset me at first. Simply because — while we all have our own existential love-hate relationship with the human race — I still want to like people and when interacting with someone, seeing their entire face helps me measure how they feel about me, and, well, how they feel about themselves, too.

5 Reasons I Wear Surgical Face Masks

Here are a few responses I collected from friends, colleagues, students and even a couple of strangers that I canvassed who have chosen to wear a mask in their daily life. Their answers are paraphrased:

  • “It keeps me from getting sick on the train since everyone is so close to each other.”
  • “Right now, I’m sick so I don’t want to give others my sickness.”
  • “Winter is cold and if I wear a mask, I feel warmer.”
  • “My mask is designed to help me not get hay fever.”
  • “I’m trying to protect my privacy. There are cameras everywhere.”
  • “I don’t want to have to feel like I must smile or emote in some way.”
  • “I don’t want to feel like I need to talk to people.”

While several popular articles out there have said that modern Japanese society started wearing “surgical masks” in the early 2000s, the truth is that the “germ mask” has been used in Japan far longer than that — try at least 85 years.

… the “germ mask” has been used in Japan far longer than that — try at least 85 years.

Here is a paragraph from a contributing writer for The Miami News who visited Japan in 1934 and wrote about her experience. Note that this is taken verbatim (and that the now derogatory “Jap” she uses pre-dates World War II):

“The Japs have a sense of humor; I read the following in one of their papers: ‘If the inventor of the Japanese germ mask would only get a brain wave and discover a crooner-proof ear muff — Japanese trade balance with the U.S. would most certainly take on a rosier hue.’”

1934 was also when a flu epidemic spanned the globe, but not to the same extent as the Spanish flu in the late 1910s, which killed millions, and nearly 400,000 people in Japan alone. That a writer for a Japanese newspaper felt comfortable making a joke about a “germ mask” means that the term was at least in the public consciousness.

Yet, since that 1934 remark, the use of the mask in Japan has certainly evolved into an item of protection — in every sense of the word.

Going back to the two examples I mentioned at the top: I can see the outside pressures the convenience store worker faces. First, if he were sans mask, he may believe he can be easily detected around the city by other local residents and cameras. In short, his day-to-day life could be tracked — perhaps even more of a concern for a college-aged female working a part-time job — so the mask ensures guaranteed anonymity. Employers who require masks probably justify their actions based on sanitary purposes. Perhaps an employee is sick or the product they sell requires a hyper germ-free environment. But the bottom line could very well be that certain people simply don’t want to be recognized. This act of social surrender, or purposeful disenfranchisement, saddens me since — at least to me — it seems to reflect a lack of self-esteem or an unwillingness to embrace the unpredictability of a chance encounter.

… the bottom line could very well be that certain people simply don’t want to be recognized.

As for the students I teach, the reason for their masks wasn’t because of academic performance. Both scored well. Instead — and as they expressed to me — there is an inherent social anxiety that exists within a classroom. A mask excuses them from having to interact with other students or feeling the expectation to be surprised or happy, even when they don’t care. In this way, the mask helps double their focus on studies, blocking out interruptions.

Learning all this, my mind pictured an Orwellian future with a masked teacher telling a masked class a story about a masked figure saving the lives of masked civilians. Our current definition of identity is quickly flickering out of existence. Perhaps even dating will incorporate the idea of wearing a mask, and only on the third or fourth date will a couple reveal their “whole self” as they each pull away their multi-colored Sanrio mask. Or, perhaps more realistically, transit authorities will soon require everyone to wear masks on trains and buses to prevent a sickness that has yet to arrive but could.

I’m not an old man — early middle-aged, I’ll “maskingly” tell you — but seeing the growing general popularity of masks irks me. Even when talking with other Westerners, it appears I’m somewhat alone in this feeling. I’ve seen many non-Japanese wearing a white mask, while others have said that they actually like the custom, as in it offers warmth: they don’t feel pressure to have to be genki (full of spirit) all the time. The people can be more careful compared to the “careless” country from which they come.

All fine, but especially to those who have been willingly wearing a “germ mask” for months on end, I offer the following quote (admittedly taken out of context). Nathanial Hawthorne, in his novel The Scarlet Letter, once wrote: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.”

I worry about this great country and its devotion to compliance. Couldn’t the mask sink the nation’s residents into a deeper form of passivity? Does it not in some way symbolize the loss of one’s voice — an inverted silent protest or an erasure of personality?

Maybe I’m taking it all too seriously. After all, it takes just as much free will to put a mask on as it does to take one off.  But whenever I’m having a conversation with a permanent mask wearer — or PMW — I can’t help but feel confused: Do you want to talk to me? And, if the masked discussion goes on for longer than a minute: How do you feel about what I’m saying — because your eyes are only part of your story.

Do you wear surgical masks in Japan to protect yourself from colds and allergies? Do you wear one for other reasons? Let us know in the comments!

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