Surgical Masks in Japan
In my job as a guide, I often got similar questions from different customers. One of the most-asked questions by far was “why do Japanese people wear those masks?”. Mind you, this was before the Covid-19 pandemic happened, and mask-wearing in public by people who were not doctors or dentists was an alien thing to many visitors of Japan. Now, many people know one of the most important reasons to wear a mask is to protect others and yourself from germs. But there are other reasons too, some of which may surprise you!
Hay Fever in Japan
One of the main reasons many people in Japan wear masks is to protect themselves from pollen. The number of people who have hay fever has actually been increasing in the last decades in Japan, as hay fever used to be relatively uncommon. The main cause of hay fever in Japan is the pollen of cedar and cypress trees. Naturally, cedar and cypress are the most prevailing trees in Japan, and their timber has been used to construct houses from a long time ago. Wood from these trees is popular in the building industry because they grow rapidly and linearly, have strong water resistance, and are easy to process.
The problem is, however, that most of these trees have been planted artificially. During WW2, a lot of houses were destroyed by the air raid and after the war, there was a strong demand for timber to rebuild the houses that were lost in the war. In order to meet this demand, the government planted millions of cedars all over Japan. Cedars start to flower and generate pollens when they become 20 to 30 years old, so it is not a coincidence that allergies increased significantly since the 1980s.
The cedar pollen season lasts from late February to March. But, unfortunately, that’s not the end of the hay fever season, because after the cedar pollen, cypress pollen start to fly in the air until the end of April. Some people still suffer in May and June from the pollen that come from poaceous plants. The good news is that well-worn and high-quality masks help significantly with reducing hay fever symptoms because the masks will stop a large amount of pollen from entering your nose and mouth. This means that if you come to Japan in the spring, you will see many people wearing masks.
Having A Cold
Pollen are not the only reason for wearing a mask, and as we all know since 2020, masks can also help a great deal in fighting the spread of respiratory infections. Since way before 2020, Japanese people have been diligent in trying not to spread their colds and flu to others. One reason is that Japanese people have learned from a young age to always think about others first, which is very kind. This is not the whole truth though, as a large part of the compliance to this social etiquette is related to always being conscious about what other people think about them. If you cough on the train without wearing a mask, you may be looked at by others on the train in an accusing way. Probably no one will say anything, but the glares are too much to handle for most Japanese people, so in order to avoid that they will wear a mask if they are feeling under the weather.
Seeing that the infection rates in Japan have been comparatively low, it seems that mask-wearing indeed does prevent a percentage of sickness cases. As it hasn’t been officially researched it is hard to say what exactly has kept the number of infections and the death rates lower than, for example, in Europe or the US, we can’t say for sure what the reasons are, but that mask-wearing has had a positive impact is quite clear.
It is not only protecting others from getting your germs, many people also wear a mask in cold and flu season to prevent themselves from catching anything. Although protection isn’t perfect, wearing a mask still lowers the chance of getting sick. Another benefit is that wearing a mask will protect your nose and throat from cold and dry winter air, making it a bit more comfortable to breathe when it is very cold outside.
The most interesting reasons for Japanese people to wear masks, however, are the social reasons that are sometimes behind it. For one, if a woman isn’t going anywhere on a particular day, she is not likely to go through the hassle of putting on her makeup. If she’d still have to pop out quickly for some shopping in the supermarket, wearing a mask would be a time-saving trick to still be able to show your face without having to apply any makeup. Of course, not every woman in Japan feels this way, but there are those who do and who hide their unmade faces behind masks if they need to go outside for a bit.
Also, everybody has an off-day sometimes. You wake up, and you just don’t really feel up for facing the world, quite literally. Many Japanese people wear a mask as a solution. Because a mask covers your nose and mouth, it is hard to make out your facial expression and you can be cranky without the whole world seeing your negative feelings from your face.
Then there are the painfully shy; a small percentage of people, that somehow seems to be a bit larger in Japan than elsewhere, is extremely shy and they often prefer to keep human interaction to a minimum. Especially if it comes to interaction with strangers, they would rather completely avoid that. Wearing a mask gives them the feeling they can hide a little, making the chance of people starting to talk to you smaller. Wearing a mask gives some people who suffer from social anxiety the courage to go outside, so it is definitely a good thing. It also gives those who are just tired of all the social interactions they had at work all day the opportunity to catch a bit of a break on their commute in public transit. Having the ability to show that you want to be left alone for a bit without having to actually say it, is a great power to have.
It Is Not Air Pollution
Many visitors used to assume that the main reason for Japanese mask-wearing was air pollution, the way you see in cities like Delhi and Beijing. However, this is not the case. Thankfully, cities in Japan have enjoyed a very reasonable air quality for the last few decades compared to many other cities in the world. From the 1960s to the early 1970s, factories have expelled hazardous smoke into the air which severely affected the air quality in Japanese cities, leading to health issues for many. This was mainly due to the economic expansion that was going on at the time, and the lack of knowledge about the effects of air pollution.
Ever since then, the Japanese government has continued the effort to reduce air pollution by setting strict regulations. The air is much clearer, even in Tokyo, compared to the 1970s. The number of days on which you can see Mount Fuji is increasing year by year, which is a good indicator of air quality as it can only be seen on very clear days without any haze in the air. Recently, it became known that stricter new regulations will be introduced for Tokyo, in an effort to keep the air in the metropole as clean as it is now there are fewer movements due to the pandemic.
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