First time visitors to Japan may be surprised to see so many people wearing surgical masks in public.
There are a few reasons for this, the most common being that they are sick and are wearing a mask to keep their nasty germs to themselves in consideration of those around them. Likewise, many people also wear a mask to guard themselves from whatever illness is going around. Others use it vainly to shield their faces from the onslaught of cedar pollen that descends upon the masses every spring.
Then there are those who wear masks because they’re self-conscious about the way they look or have something they want to hide, like a pimple or even their emotions.
In particular, wearing surgical masks for cosmetic and comfort purposes has become so popular among young people in Japan over the past few years that the media has begun labeling it as a “fashion trend.”
In March 2011, News Post Seven surveyed 100 people wearing surgical masks in Shibuya, Tokyo’s most popular fashion district, and found that roughly 30% of them were wearing them for reasons unrelated to sickness or allergies.
Adding to that data, earlier this month Japanese news program ZIP! aired a special about young men and women who wear surgical masks as fashion items, in which they counted the number of people wearing masks as they walked down a Tokyo street and found that the number has increased 14-fold compared to previous data.
ZIP! also surveyed the reasons why people who aren’t sick or have allergies wear masks. The results, beginning with the most popular answer, are as follows:
1. They’re not wearing any makeup and want to hide their face
2. To keep their face warm
3. To make their face look small
4. It comforts them
5. To keep their throat from drying while sleeping
According to info-gathering site Naver Matome, some women see the mask as not only a way to cover up their face on a bad makeup day, but also as an accessory that can make them more attractive.
“It gives you a mysterious appearance since only your eyes are showing,” says one high-school girl. “Wearing a mask makes me look cuter!”
Some companies are even seeking to capitalize on this new fashion trend, such as Picomask, which has been selling stylish and colorful surgical masks since 2010.
Other testimonies by those who say they wear masks for the comfort it provides suggest that there is something psychologically deeper than self-image issues as work.
“I don’t want to show others my true self,” “Since my face is covered, people don’t know how I’m really feeling. It’s comforting,” and “I don’t like having to create facial expressions for people” are some of the reasons given by Japanese high school students who mask up regardless of the season.
According to Yuzo Kikumoto, author of Date Mask Izonsho, a book discussing why young people may have begun “hiding” behind masks in public, explains that many Japanese students wear a mask to keep them from standing out among the crowd: “They have an abnormal fear of showing who they really are to their peers.”
Others believe that having to rely on a mask to feel comfortable in public is a byproduct of Japanese youth becoming too accustomed to using e-mail and social networks to communicate with each other; they can’t interact with others unless there is a protective “wall” that offers them some degree of anonymity.
“The nail that stands out will be hammered down” is one of the better-known proverbs in Japan. Japanese are educated from childhood to but the group before their own interests, and many people feel reluctant to do anything that would make them stand out—the most famous example being the Japanese student who deliberately gives the wrong answer when called on during class for fear that “showing off” will lead them to be ostracized by their classmates. Surgical masks give these young people another way to blend in with the crowd.