Like kimono and T-shirts with English writing (sometimes vulgar, sometimes comical, always unintelligible), the number of people you’ll see in Japan wearing surgical masks is pretty surprising. Sure, Japan is a hard working society, and the spread of productivity-sapping sickness is always a concern at schools and workplaces, but that doesn’t seem like reason enough for the proliferation of facial coverings that sometimes has Tokyo offices looking more like an operating room.
Health concerns are only part of the equation, though, as recent studies have revealed multiple reasons people in Japan wear masks that have nothing to do with hygiene.
Until recently, masks were primarily worn by people who had already come down with an illness. If you were feeling under the weather but couldn’t take the day off, common courtesy dictated that you cover your mouth and nose with a mask, so as not to breathe your germs all over you class or office mates or fellow commuters.
Things started changing in 2003, though, when medical supply maker Unicharm released a new type of mask specifically designed for hay fever sufferers. Until that point, most masks had been made of cotton, with an inner pouch into which gauze was placed. After taking off the mask users threw out the gauze, washed the cotton mask for reuse, and restuffed the pocket.
Unicharm’s anti-hay fever masks, though, were made of non-woven material, which was more effective in blocking pollen. They were also completely disposable and could be cheaply bought in bulk. This new type of mask was a game changer, and business research firm Fuji Keizai now says non-woven masks account for 86 percent of the market today.
The introduction of these cheap, easier-to-use masks also made it more practical to wear one in order to prevent getting sick in the first place. Commuting in Japan often means spending an hour or more pressed up against your fellow passengers on a train or bus, and not everyone has the good manners to put down their smartphone and cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze.
Sales figures show that use of masks has more than tripled over the last decade, with particularly large spikes caused by influenza outbreak fears in 2009 and worries over micro particulate matter following the earthquake and nuclear accident of 2011. Estimates for fiscal year 2013 value Japan’s mask market at 23.9 billion yen (US$229.8 million).
But as masks provoke less and less surprise, some people are using them for purposes that have nothing to do with physical health.
One 46-year-old mother, who herself wears a mask every day in the winter to prevent getting sick, says her high-school-age daughter wears one for a completely different reason. “She puts on a mask and sticks headphones in her ears so that people won’t bother her. It makes it harder for them to start talking to her.”
Juvenile psychologist Jun Fujikake has made simmilar observations. “When we deal with others, we have to judge whether to do things like smile or show anger,” he explains. “By wearing a mask, you can prevent having to do that. The trend of wearing a mask to prevent directly dealing with other may have roots in the current youth culture in which many of them are more accustomed to communicating indirectly through email and social media.”
▼ Kind of makes you miss the good old days, when kids didn’t need to rely on props or technology to show how sullen they were.
But the recent surge in masks’ popularity isn’t entirely the result of a desire to give people the cold shoulder. On the contrary, an increasing number of people are using masks because of their desire for warmth.
Japan gets pretty chilly during the winter. Thankfully, the layered look is definitely in, and as the temperature drops, you can bundle up with tights, undershirts, sweaters, parkas, gloves, scarves, and caps. One thing that’s hard to do, though, is keep your face warm.
Granted, you could always pick up a ski mask at the sporting goods shop, but effectiveness aside, you’re going to get some strange looks wearing one anywhere other than on the slopes. But since Japanese society has already gotten used to people wearing surgical masks outside of the hospital, you can safely put one on to keep your nose and cheeks warm without attracting any attention.
▼ Having your glasses steam up is a small price to pay to keep your lips warm enough that you can move them.
Not only have masks become so commonplace that wearers aren’t seen as unattractive, some people are finding fashion and beauty uses for them. One professional model interviewed by reporters says she often slips on a mask after washing off her makeup at the end of a photo shoot, in order to keep her au naturel face hidden from the public. Even women whose livelihood doesn’t depend on looking their best at all times are finding masks to be a handy for those times when they need to dash out to run errands and don’t feel like spending a half-hour putting on blush and lipstick first.
▼ This woman could have a moustache, for all we know.
Some people even see masks as a fashionable accessory. An online search for masuku bijin or “beautiful masked girl” will bring up hundreds of results, and an increasing number of companies are offering masks with floral, polka dot, and even houndstooth patterns, not to mention jet-black ninja-style masks for guys.
There’s even a mask whose seller claims it’ll help you lose weight. Cosmetics maker T-Garden has jumped into the mask arena with its Flavor Mask. Not only does it feature a pretty-in-pink design, each disposable mask comes infused with the scent of raspberry, which T-Garden says will boost your metabolism.
We’re not entirely convinced about the scientific soundness of their promise, and from an armchair psychology viewpoint, it seems like a food-based fragrance is going to do more to ramp up your appetite than your metabolism. Still, like any mask it should help prevent you from passing a cold around, keep your face a little warmer, cut off unwanted social interaction, and preclude the need to wear extensive makeup, none of which is necessarily diminished by its calorie-burning quackery.
▼ If you absolutely have to buy snake oil, you may as well get the nicest-smelling kind.