Hello from Japan! We hope everyone is currently in a safe place and doing alright, working from home (if you’re lucky to be in a field where that’s possible) and/or not going insane with boredom while you “quarantine and chill.” If you need anything from Japan, we’ve got a great Support Sale that ends on April 8 (PST), so grab what you need quickly!
Since there’s a lot of discussion about Japan’s mask culture during the present crisis, I thought I’d talk about the origins and history of health masks in Japan, and list some surprising benefits of wearing a mask when you’re out in public!
The Origins of Japan’s Mask Culture
When I first arrived in Japan — back during the first George Bush presidency, yikes! — one of the first things I noticed that Japan sure had a lot of doctors. Clearly they were doctors, because they had just gotten out of surgery and were wearing masks over their mouths but had been too busy to take their masks off. I came to realize the truth about masks in Japan: they’re worn by a certain number of people on a daily basis, unrelated to any profession, and they yield a wide range of benefits, some of which are surprising.
As I’ve written before, Japan’s tradition of wearing masks in public has been around for a long time…since the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, in fact. It caught on then and has been part of Japanese daily life since then.
While masks are pretty common in most of Asia, it might feel weird to wear one in other countries where it’s not already part of society. But here are ten benefits of Japan’s mask culture that will hopefully help you get over any strangeness you may feel!
Masks Can Protect You From the Germs of Others
As we know from medical professionals, the best protection is a medical-grade N-95 mask that is designed to filter out dangerous bacteria and viruses. Viruses are especially problematic since they’re so small — 1000 times smaller than bacteria. But if we look at countries that had a tradition of wearing masks in public, such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, it seems clear that the masks are helping at least partially. Having “some” protection, even if it’s less than perfect, can only be a good thing.
They Can Protect Others from Your Germs
Similarly, the tradition of wearing masks around others should provide some protection for them. I live with my wife’s elderly parents, and am cognizant that any mistake I make with this virus will be much more dangerous for them than for my wife and me.
Masks Protect You from Dust and Pollen
Are you a sufferer of hayfever allergies? Are you doing cleaning in a dusty room? Wearing a mask can help with both of these!
Masks Can Give You Some Privacy in a Crowded Train
Japanese people suffer from social anxiety when in crowded places, the same as people in other parts of the world. I’ve heard that wearing a mask in public can provide a sense of having some privacy even when you’re packed into a crowded subway car. I’ve heard from women that masks also let you get away without putting on make-up, and make it less likely some guy will try to pick up on you.
They Increase Your “Personal Space”
Japan’s mask culture can also yield some social benefits, by putting a small barrier in between you and others that becomes part of your personal space. It’s not unlike the way I’m wearing headphones without music right now, which I wear when I need to show the J-List staff that I’m blogging now and would prefer to not be disturbed. Ema Yasuhara from Shirobako is a “mask chara” who is always wearing a mask when she works.
They’re Good Etiquette
Wearing a mask in public shows good manners in general. I remember when I was buying furniture with my wife, the lady who was helping us with the purchase was suffering from allergies, and had a mask on to indicate that we shouldn’t get too close to her. It gave us a positive view of the store overall. Whenever I’m out taking my daily walk and another family with children come near, I put on my mask to reassure them.
They Show a Dedication to Hygiene
People who work in the foodservice industry will always wear these masks while they work, to ensure no germs get onto the food they’re preparing.
They Provide Warmth
Wearing a mask on a cold winter day can be quite toasty as the mask helps warm the air as you breathe in.
They Provide Some Anonymity
Are you a famous person who wants to avoid being noticed in public? Or do you want to pretend you are? Then embrace Japan’s face mask culture!
They Turn You Into a “Moe” Anime Character
One of the attractions of moe characters is that they’ve got to have some imperfection that is adorable to fans. It could be clumsiness, wearing glasses, a fear of ghost stories, or any other fault that’s endearing to viewers. One popular trope in anime is an episode where a character catches a cold, and needs to be cared for by other characters. Wearing a mask will make you moe af!
You Can Show You’re Taking this Seriously
When I was back in the U.S. in early March, before the situation got really serious, I walked around downtown San Diego with my Japanese face mask on, but I got so many sharp stares from shocked people around me that I sheepishly took my mask off. But wearing a mask now shows everyone that you’re taking the situation seriously, for your sake and for others, and that you’re a cool person on the cutting edge of important health trends.
Where Can You Get a Mask?
Back during the SARS and swine flu outbreaks, which were much less severe, J-List sold masks from Japan to people around the world, including Hello Kitty masks. In the current crisis this wouldn’t be appropriate (and masks aren’t available anyway). But if you need a mask and don’t have access to one, there are some great examples out there on YouTube of easy-to-sew and even no-sew masks you can check out, like this one which lets you convert an old T-shirt into a mask. What a great idea!
Remember, I am not a doctor, and none of these masks can provide 100% protection during this crisis. I’m just a guy who lives in a country that has seen concrete benefits from wearing face masks in public and thinks having an extra barrier between you and others while in public is a good thing.
Thanks for reading this post on Japan’s mask culture, and please keep safe. Got any feedback, or topics you’d like me to write about here? Tell me on Twitter!
The Comic Market that was supposed to take place in May has been cancelled, but J-List is on the job, getting all the great doujinshi you want so you can maintain your collection and help Japan’s artists get through the crisis. Browse our Iyapan books here!