Almost everyone will wear a mask on every street in Tokyo today. The death toll from COVID-19 in Japan is around 1,500 in a country of 126 million people. This is drastically less than most western countries, but everyone is still hiding and there is almost no anti-masking movement.
Why do Japanese people like to wear masks so much when people from other countries cross? The first reason is the most obvious: to avoid spreading germs. Don’t catch germs, don’t spread germs on your mind. In Japan, a cold or cough without trying to keep bacteria or viruses away is considered bad.
Of course, like everyone else, Japanese people want to avoid germs. Here’s what the above poster from the 1920’s says: “This guy doesn’t care about his own life!” There has been a lot of talk about the fact that the countries hardest hit by SARS have responded. best for the coronavirus, but the Japanese dressed long before SARS. In part, the Spanish flu pandemic and its consequences changed culture, along with other important factors.
Pollen allergy is a big problem in Japan. In the post-war period, the Japanese government covered millions of cedar and cypress trees to supply the construction industry with wood. The unexpected consequence of all the plantings is that every year from about January to May, an invisible pollen soup appears in urban areas, making the lives of about a quarter of the population miserable. It is known that some Japanese emigrated to leave; others only wore masks.
As strange as it may sound, there is also an aesthetic reason some Japanese women actively enjoy wearing masks. For example, the country has an old taboo against a woman showing the inside of her mouth, which may be due to the terrible condition of traditional Japanese teeth. Some McDonald’s restaurants in Japan even offer special cardboard boxes that women can eat on the back, and a card is often printed with a young woman’s face on the bottom.
There are hints here too. In Japan, it is desirable to have a thin and small aspect of the jaw, chin and mouth. It is considered kawaii or cute. You’ve probably noticed that in Japanese manga and anime, the characters, especially the female ones, have very large eyes, but small noses and chins – or none at all. If you are a Japanese woman with a strong jawline or a male chin, dress up with relief.
Masks are increasingly being adapted around the world, but it is not surprising that Japan is the world leader in the art of masks. Fashion is important in Japan and the mask designs are cool. There are animal faces, masks with chains, masks that glow in the dark, and – my favorite for being jokes that are an integral part of the best of fashion – masks that leave holes in your mouth. So they are decorative and can be useful for dating. I remember seeing a woman who appeared to be wearing a mask as she said goodbye to their meeting when she bent down to kiss. It was like throwing a bucket of cold water on it.
In Japan, however, wearing a mask is not unsexy. Think about that pretty old fan painting and the way Japanese women use it flirtatiously. There is an idea called chirarianism, which comes from the word chirari which means “to see” or “to see.” This means scope for offering disclosure. Hiding faces stimulates erotic fantasies in Japan. Imagine the accusations between two people when it comes time to remove their masks.
When I asked a Japanese friend to tell me what he likes about wearing a mask, he listed a number of reasons. They protect from sunburn, he said. Why use high factor sunscreen when you can wear masks and sunglasses? It’s also a great way to get rid of unwanted calls. The stereotype is that Japanese people are socially shy and introverted, but some of them are and masks allow them to withdraw from social circles – or at least out of their mouths and noses. Japanese people rarely shake hands or hug, preferring to bow. This is basically a form of respect for other people’s personal space. The mask feels like a continuation of these considerations.
My mother-in-law, who is Japanese, says masks are a great way to draw moisture to the eyes, especially when the air is dry or cold. He claims that this is the main reason he wears the mask: “to bathe his eyes”.
Can we learn something from this in the West? I think it’s up to us. One day, data will actually emerge on whether wearing a mask is effective against transmission of the virus. Until then, we can also take the Japanese route.