Who is that masked man?

Previous posts have tried to address such questions as,” Do you really get squashed into the train? ” “Do Japanese really bathe naked with strangers?” ” Is all Japanese food raw fish?.” A quick edited versions of those 3 posts would be yes, yes, no. Please feel free to scroll back for the more pertinent details!

Today`s topic is why do Japanese people wear surgical masks?

surgical mask 1 surgical mask 2 surgical mask 3

I am not sure the answer to this one has deep deep historical roots although there is a history of masks in Noh Theatre which dates from the 14th century and Samurai armour has a long history and sports some pretty nifty face protection. The first military government led by Minamoto Yoritome, a shogun, was set up in 1192.

Noh Theatre Masks

nog mask 2      noh mask

Samurai Armour and some entrepreneurial attempt at making a surgical mask based on it.

samurai face masks 2 samurai face masks

So why do Japanese people wear masks? They are not all surgeons who have left the work place and forgotten to take off their masks, bit like the foreigners and the toilet slippers! They are not all cosplay fanatics who like to dress as their favourite manga characters. Why?

The 3 main long term reasons given are;

1) Consideration. They have a cold or the sniffles and want to protect others by not sharing their germs. It is considered considerate to wear a mask. There are of course times when the most considerate thing to do would be to stay home! However in corporate Japan people very rarely take time off for fear of being seen as a slacker, or fear of causing an indisposition to others so they just mask up and spread the lurgy.

2) Prevention. It is winter, the cold and flu season. They wear masks to avoid catching the latest lurgy. I am pretty sure there will be figures out there that show a massive spikes in sales of surgical masks during the SARS outbreak in about 2003 and the swine flu in 2009. There will be those citing Ebola as the next new reason to wear a mask. Mask sales have apparently tripled over the last decade and it is a 26 billion yen market.  So now we have 2 subsets of society donning masks, the considerate and the paranoid.

3) Allergies. During spring the pollen count is very high. Hay fever abounds so many people wear masks. Masked people frolick under the cherry blossoms only removing their mask to drink and eat which they do so in copious amounts so why bother?!

hanami3  hanami1

Recently there is a 4th reason. Pollution and fear of nuclear contamination. The pollution factor is not only domestic. Occasionally there are great coloured clouds of goodness knows what drifting over from China and one year it seemed the Gobi desert was trying to immigrate to Tokyo. The Nuclear issue is domestic and a result of the Fukushima disaster. Sadly for those near ground zero a mask is not going to be the saving grace.

These 4 reasons aside, the ones I find interesting are the social and psychological reasons for wearing a mask.

There is research which suggests the masks are often used as a “wall” for hiding behind and as a tool to discourage unwanted interaction. The may explain why so many of my students turn up to the Oral communication class in masks! They are quite shocked when I ask them to remove their mask if I call on them for an answer. Hell I can’t lip read when they have that thing on.  For some it is a way to blend in and not show their true self.

A survey of 100 people by News Post Seven showed approximately 30%  were wearing masks for reasons unrelated to sickness or allergies.  Some wear them to hide a blemish like a big pulsing zit, some because they haven’t got their make up on, others to keep their face warm.

Apparently masks can be considered as an accessory, some women thinks it makes their face look smaller. “It gives you a mysterious appearance since only your eyes are showing,” said one high-school girl. “Wearing a mask makes me look cuter!” In my last post I used the phrase onsen bijin, a hot spring beauty. While checking out some articles about masks I came across the phrase Masuku bijin, a masked beauty.

When I google it in English I get images like this.

mask 2  mask1

But if I google masuku bijin Japan, I get …..

mask bijin1

We then jump from the semi plausible and” ok what ever rocks your boat” to “huh? are you really that gullible?” Weight loss can be achieved by wearing  this particular mask. Not because you can’t shove food in your gob because it is covered but because this is infused with a raspberry smell that will increase your metabolism. As we say in NZ on the Tui billboards “Yeah right”


Still maybe I should invest in some of these, if anything the infused smell may help stop some of the smellier encounters I have had on crowded trains!

Now if you are driving on a Japanese highway a night you may come a bunch or very noisy, obnoxious, throttle revving mask wearing deviants. They are not wearing the masks out of consideration but rather to stop gassing themselves from the exhaust fumes they generate from their pimped abominations  of a motorcycle and to avoid being caught on security cameras by the cops. They are called Bousouzoku and are marauding motorcycle youth sub-culture gangs that like to drag each other off on the highways. I will just stick with Bozo.


However ineffectual and unnerving masks can be I think they are here to stay. Marketing forces beyond our control are in play! When you visit Japan please don’t be afraid that you have stumbled into some apocalyptic viral aftermath of a hypo allergenic hell hole inhabited by germ-a-phobes. Nope it is just the “preventative – consideration”, “every quirky fashion conscious”,  “don’t look at me, I’m not different” cultural gravy train for the producers of the ever present masuku.

Yoroshiku Onegai shimasuimages (1)


2 responses to “Who is that masked man?

  1. “When you visit Japan please don’t be afraid that you have stumbled into some apocalyptic viral aftermath of a hypo allergenic hell hole inhabited by germ-a-phobes.” Snort!! Brilliant piece of descriptive writing right there! Permission to use?


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