Following the swine flu outbreak in 2009, the world seems to have discovered the possible use of sanitary masks in the event of a pandemic. As regards Japan, seen from the West, we regularly see reports of the Japanese wearing masks after a possible nuclear contamination from the Fukushima power plant. Previously, and particularly in the 1990s, it was said that in Japan, especially in megacities like Tokyo, people had to wear masks because of spikes in pollution levels.
Many ideas, clichés and stories have grown up around the use of these masks, which has been widespread in Japan and many Asian countries for quite a while. But Japanese people wearing a mask on the nose and the mouth has many other important uses.
First, it has an antibacterial function when a person has caught a virus, so as not to infect others with germs. Given the population density, especially in big cities and on public transport, diseases are transmitted more easily and wearing face masks reduces contagious viruses such as colds or flu. Therefore those who are in contact with a large number of people, such as railway station employees, also often wear them.
In the same vein, if it is very cold outside or when the air is dry, wearing a mask prevents the wearer from breathing the air "directly" and so avoids irritating the throat or catching a cold.
Then there is the allergy prevention function. As we explained in our article on hay fever in Japan, pollens are very powerful and many Japanese people are allergic. So wearing a mask is very common in the spring.
Finally, young (and not so young) Japanese women who did not have the time, or did not bother, to wear make-up, might wear a mask to avoid having to put makeup on their lower faces. Thus, a quick application of mascara and/or a line or two with the eye pencil will give the illusion of being fully made up. The same applies if a black head or ugly spot crops up overnight!
In Japan, having a large part of the face hidden by the sanitary mask is not a problem, even during social interactions. This is a simple mark of respect and a hygienic measure in accordance with the rules of Japanese society. That's why during a trip to Japan, you will meet many people regardless of gender, age or season, wearing sanitary masks.
There are many mask manufacturers and they are sold everywhere, especially in konbini (convenience stores) or in 100¥ shops. The quality of the mask depends on the price: most are made of a thick, strong fabric. The overwhelming majority of masks sold are white, but you can also find more wacky designs; we came across Japanese children with a Hello Kitty design or with vampire teeth!
Nowhere but in Japan would millions of antibacterial masks be sold every year.