Wearing surgical masks in the public has become a regular part of Japanese society, not only relegated to flu season or fears of catching a cold. It is completely normal for Japanese to wear it and go about their daily life. This may seem surprising to those traveling from abroad. The reason behind this custom is a bigger picture than any would have thought. Here’s a look into why surgical masks are so important in Japanese society.
Reasons for wearing a surgical mask
From cold prevention to fashion to pollen protection to many more, people in Japan wear surgical masks for a variety of reasons. For a year-round, it is very common to see someone wearing a surgical mask throughout Japan.
First and foremost, people wear surgical masks for health reasons. It isn’t just for self protection during flu seasons, but in Japan, showing consideration towards the others by wearing a surgical mask in the case if you think you have a cold or already ill and still need to go outside, is considered a good manner. One of the main reasons for this is due to high population density where for example, Tokyo is reported to have a population of 13,857,129 in 2019. 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. Many studies suggest that wearing surgical masks can help keep you safe from bacteria and viruses that are flying around. Also, it can prevent and spread germs too. So, with such a large population, the risk of contagion and disease is much higher, therefore, people tend to wear a surgical mask for both self prevention and prevent the people around them from getting sick. Plus, from an early age, Japanese are taught strictly the importance of prevention. All over the walls and bulletin boards in schools, there are posters advocating personal hygiene. These habits are carried into adulthood, and therefore it is quite common to see someone wearing a surgical mask for health reasons.
Every year, there are more Japanese suffering from kafunsho (花粉症) or hay fever. The latest record by Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Public Health said 48.8% of the population in Tokyo are estimated to have hay fever, which means 1 out of 2 people are suffering from it. There are more than 60 types of plants and trees that cause hay fever in Japan, but the pollen from the Japanese cedar (sugi 杉) and Japanese cypress (hinokiヒノキ) is most common. Especially from Spring season (late Feb to May) and Fall season (late August to mid November), when the symptoms appear, considering that these pollen particles are fairly large, wearing surgical masks will filter out a large part of pollen particles. Which means, wearing a surgical mask is crucial for those suffering from hay fevers to provide some relief from the irritation caused by the pollen and also hide a runny, red nose from being seen by others.
This may not be common just in Japan but some Japanese wear surgical masks to hide physical imperfections, or on days they just don’t want to use make-up. And some even believe that wearing a surgical mask helps make the face look smaller and slimmer, which is considered to be cute in Japan. On the other hand, it is an easy quick way to cover hard-to-hide situations like pimples, zits, or scars on faces. It may be rare but as part of a business etiquette in Japan to have a clean-shaven face, there may be some who forgot or had no time to shave their beard in the morning to wear a surgical mask.
For a younger generation, surgical masks as fashion have become a major part of the Japanese world, although a bit of mystery to Westerners. For example in Harajuku, the center of Japanese youth and cultural fashion, there is a shop called https://ceno.jp/gonoturn at Laforet Harajuku that makes creative surgical masks including collaboration with many well known manga characters. Unlike the usual plain white ones, the surgical masks sold at gonoturn resemble animals and characters from Japanese pop cultures which are simply cute and attractive. These surgical masks are used as a cute fashion accessory and it is said to be made of a super soft material that doesn't irritate one's skin. Aside from those, there are other simple ones that come in pink or with laces for the Lolita girl subculture, studded black ones for metal fans, and the list goes on.
Surgical masks as fashion, sold from different brands
gonoturn shop opened at Laforet Harajuku in 2019 selling cute surgical masks from Japanese pop culture
Why is surgical mask a fashion trend in Japan?
Surgical masks are a part of a fashion item among young people to make them feel comfortable and attractive and give them more self confidence. Over the past few years, especially among young people in Japan, they began wearing surgical masks for cosmetic and comfort purposes with the media labeling it as a “fashion trend”. Nowadays, it is pretty easy to spot someone who is wearing a mask that is clearly for fashion purposes in such areas like Harajuku. For example, girls in Lolita subculture will often choose pink masks with laces, and heavy metal subcultures fans will typically choose black masks with dark eye makeup.
However, psychologists believe that this feeling of “comfortableness” and “being part of a group” in public is a byproduct of Japanese youth who are becoming too accustomed to using social media and emails to communicate with each other. Sadly, this means that younger generations can’t interact with others unless there is a protective “wall” that offers them some degree of anonymity. This comes from a Japanese culture best described in the proverb, “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down”.
In Japan, many people feel reluctant to do anything that would make them stand out. Showing off is considered to lead a person to be ostracized from their group (classmates, colleagues, family etc.) and in some research, it is believed that to blend in the crowd and getaway from this “fear” of isolation, young people prefer to wear surgical masks. In anyhow, this may not be the actual case as this is just one result from a research. Some say they just wear it because it makes the face warm or prevents the throat from drying so it's up to one’s subjectivity.
However, in such social phenomenon, as if to recommend the use of “date mask伊達マスク”, a mask worn in the case other than being sick, prevent being sick, or have allergy, many companies came up with their unique marketing strategy to design surgical masks that can be worn as a daily use and fashion item. For example, gonoturn selling many different kinds of surgical masks resembling Japanese pop culture, Unicharm who actually designed surgical mask that make the face look small and skinny, Kowas who designed surgical masks that are smear free and the list goes on.
One example of surgical mask that make your face look small and slim
One example of surgical mask that are more for fashion item where you can transform yourself into an animal
Different types of surgical masks in Japan
The most worn surgical mask is the plain white one. It can be purchased anywhere in Japan from convenience stores to drug stores to discount shops. These disposable surgical masks are sold from 200 yen (tax exclusive).
※In some seasons, there might be a shortage in these surgical masks and not necessary it is available to be purchased
Typical plain white surgical masks sold at convenience stores
In recent months, Japanese Pitta Mask have been a surge in popularity. This mask has no filter inside and is made completely of polyurethane, the same material used to make sponges. If you wash it, it is reusable too. Because it is soft, it is very comfortable to wear. 1 bag has 3 pitta masks with a price around 400 yen (tax exclusive).
Different color variations of Pitta Mask which comes in kids, small and regular sizes
Some of the masks are specially made to prevent dry mouth or throat while sleeping. This “のどぬーるぬれマスク(Nodo Nuru Wet Mask)” has introduced a wet filter, which evaporates moisture during breathing and keeps moisture into the throat for 10 hours. There are two types, for daytime use(昼夜兼用) and bedtime use(就寝用). Because of the wet filter, it is very comfortable and easy to breathe even while you are asleep. One box of のどぬーるぬれマスク(Nodo Nuru Wet Mask) comes with three wet filters and three white surgical masks with a pocket to put the filter in. It is sold for 400yen (tax exclusive) per box.
Sample bed time use のどぬーるぬれマスク(Nodo Nuru Wet Mask)
Why is it common for Japanese to wear surgical masks?
As a reflection of Japan’s culture of respect for each other, it is common to see people wearing surgical masks year round. Not just to prevent the spread of the diseases, surgical mask wearers use it for varied reasons, however different from the standards of health and fashion to the Western world. Nonetheless, if you are curious about experiencing wearing one for yourself, why not stop over to shop for one while you visit Japan.