In Western countries, if you saw someone walking around wearing a surgical mask, you might be surprised and assume they have some sort of illness or just came from a hospital! But in Japan, and many other countries in Asia, wearing a surgical mask as you go about your daily life is completely normal. Here’s a look into why Japanese people wear surgical masks.
1. Preventing The Spread of Germs
Just like the role surgical masks play in Western countries, in Japan, the first and foremost reason that people wear masks is for health. However, while people (typically doctors) in the West wear surgical masks to protect themselves from outside germs, in Japan, it’s often the opposite. If Japanese people have a cold or other illness, they will usually wear a mask to prevent the people around them from also getting sick.
A big part of this is due to Japan’s incredibly high population density. The cities especially are quite crowded; Tokyo, for example, reported a population of 37,435,191 in 2018. Having that many people in such a small space can of course increase the spread of germs, and lack of personal space on public transportation is inevitable.
Japanese people are taught to be considerate of those around them, so wearing a mask to prevent the spread of germs is normalized from a very young age. Many public schools have signs encouraging children to keep clean, wash their hands, and wear masks if they believe they are getting sick. And, when the students are serving the daily kyūshoku (給食) school lunches to their classmates, they are required to wear masks for this reason as well.
These habits are carried into adulthood, and therefore it is quite common to see someone wearing a mask if they have a cold or other illness.
2. Protection from Pollen & Hay Fever
Apart from protecting people from germs, surgical masks are a solid tactic to protect yourself from irritants in the air, such as pollen and pollution. Masks do a great job at filtering out these kinds of particles in the air, especially during allergy season (a.k.a. “hay fever” season) in the Spring.
Hay fever is called kafunshō (花粉症, “pollen symptom”) in Japanese, and is actually incredibly intense in Japan compared to other countries. Kafunshō is most commonly caused by pollen from cedar, which is known as sugi in Japanese.
Japanese cedar pollen can be found in the air from February through April. During this period, the number of people suffering from hay fever increases drastically, and those who sufferer from the symptoms experience sneezing, watery eyes, runny noses, facial swelling and more!
As a matter of fact, the mass suffering during allergy season in the spring is so great, that Japanese people often refer to hay fever as the national illness, or kokuminbyo (国民病) of Japan. About a quarter of Japan’s population (25 million people) are estimated to suffer from the symptoms. Sometimes it is said that not one Japanese person doesn’t know someone who is affected by it. During this season, the pollen quantity is forecasted every day alongside the weather on TV, in newspapers, and on the internet.
You will see many Japanese people (and even some foreigners!) wearing masks during this time between February and April.
There are more “personal” reasons to wear a mask in Japan – such as privacy. Japanese people will often use a mask to hide any physical imperfections, such as pimples or scars. Many Japanese women just throw on a mask on days that they don’t want to wear makeup. It’s a fast and easy way to hide your face if you’re going out in public, but don’t really want to be “seen”.
An especially shy Japanese person might hide beneath a mask to conceal themselves from other members of society. In a crowded city where you are often face-to-face with a number of strangers, hiding beneath a mask can provide a sense of privacy and security for people who are shy and lacking in self-esteem.
And finally, there is the purpose of mere aesthetics. Masks have also become a major part of Japan’s fashion culture! Many young Japanese people admit to wearing masks for reasons other than just being sick – they can also serve as a great fashion accessory. While surgical masks were originally only worn if absolutely necessary, but modern masks now come in a variety of styles and colors, and can be easily incorporated into a number of fashion trends.
Especially in “fashion hubs” like Harajuku in Tokyo, it can be pretty easy to spot someone who is wearing a mask clearly for fashion purposes. Girls participating in the cute “Lolita” subculture will often wear pink or frilly masks. Fans of the “Gothic Lolita” or “heavy metal” subcultures typically wear black masks with dark eye makeup. Wearing such a bold mask helps fashion-forward teens stand out as they walk down the street. It also hides their mouth and brings attention to the eyes.
What about your country? Do you wear a mask daily?
LEARN BASIC JAPANESE! Check out our Udemy Online Japanese Lessons.
Want your own personalized Japanese name seal? Order a custom Hanko stamp online!