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Japan’s mask culture becomes a fashion statement

Reason behind this lies in the collective culture of the nation where mask-wearing has a long history

People wearing face masks cross a street in Tokyo on Jan. 27

People wearing face masks cross a street in Tokyo on Jan. 27. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 22, 2023 12:01 PM GMT

For many people around the world, face masks have become an essential accessory to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. In Japan, however, a mask has now become part of formal attire. Public officials and diplomats now wear one the most as the latest fashion with their office branch name on it like a high brand.

But wearing a face mask was already a common practice in Japan even before the pandemic, having been used for over a century. A refined mask with a copper wire mesh filter can be traced back to 1879, followed by the popular "must wear" masks during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920.

The fact that the Spanish flu didn’t spread as much in Japan was said to be due to the capability of the mask to fend off the virus. From then on Japan's adoption of masks became a norm, so much so that if you get the chance go to the Edo Museum in Tokyo — which will be closed for many years to come since it is going through a thorough renovation — you can see pictures of Japanese people wearing them after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. The main reason back then was to protect themselves from ash and smoke.

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During the industrialization period, the 1950s-60s masks were also a common feature in Japan as they were designed to combat pollution — just like in many other Asian countries during their boom years — but also the pollen from the over-plantation of Japanese cedars that were used to meet the demand of the booming house market.

"Japanese people's continued use of masks vary, and it is not entirely due to the pandemic"

Masks have been more common in recent years also thanks to showbiz, with media celebrities shown wearing them in magazines and on television.

And now, even though Covid-19-related protocols have eased, many Japanese people still feel more comfortable wearing a mask in public.

According to a recent survey, around 74 percent of Japanese people have continued to wear face masks even after the government eased the protocols on March 13. The reasons behind the Japanese people's continued use of masks vary, and it is not entirely due to the pandemic, the survey reveals.

One of the most cited reasons for wearing a face mask is to prevent infections. This reason was given by 50 percent of the respondents who have continued to wear masks as usual. This is also due to the many programs, especially on the state channel, NHK, which have literally terrified the public by showing the “science” behind a simple cough or sneeze.

They have analyzed the distance covered by particles emitted via nose and mouth while coughing and show unequivocally that they do reach an interlocutor standing within two meters. You can well understand that in Japan, either at the workplace, while commuting, or during lunchtime, there are practically zero instances when you won’t be next to someone who is more than two meters away. Especially in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, the ‘crowd’ is everywhere.

This suggests that many Japanese people have become accustomed to wearing masks as a preventive measure against various illnesses, and all sorts of potentially harmful bacteria, even after anti-Covid-19 measures were deemed unnecessary.

"Younger Japanese people are less likely to cite Covid-19 prevention as a reason for continuing to wear masks"

Of course, another reason cited by many respondents for the use of masks is pollen allergies. Japan experiences a significant amount of pollen during the spring season, leading many people to wear masks to alleviate their allergy symptoms.

In addition to this, and this may be the most interesting aspect, a respectable percentage of respondents said that wearing a mask has now become a habit.

Interestingly enough the survey shows that younger Japanese people are less likely to cite Covid-19 prevention as a reason for continuing to wear masks. Only about 30 percent of respondents in their thirties, or younger, mentioned Covid-19 prevention as the reason for wearing a mask. This suggests that the use of masks among younger generations in Japan has become more of a fashion statement than a health-related necessity.

It will be interesting to see how young students will behave starting next month. In fact, mask use will, in theory, no longer be advised in classrooms as of April 1. Also, the government will request that schools refrain from requiring pupils either to remove or wear masks.

This is a typical Japanese pronouncement, and effectively, a non-decision. Students will have to decide on their own and the easy guess is that they will go with the status quo, which is they will most likely keep the mask. The reason is not at all unexpected. In the collective culture of this country, people find it easier to continue following customary practice, even if it feels uncomfortable, rather than risk being criticized for going against the norm.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.


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