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 developed about the use of these masks, which has been widespread in Japan and many Asian countries for quite a while. The use of a sanitary mask is thought to have begun after the 1919 influenza pandemic (or Spanish flu), that killed more than 400,000 people.
There are many reasons for Japanese people to cover their mouth and their nose.
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 idea, the mask is used to prevent catching a virus from colleagues’ cough or sneeze. According to some studies, wearing a sanitary mask could lower the contagion risk to 80%.
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 (up to half the population) are allergic. So wearing a mask during spring is very common.
Surprisingly, 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!
The combination sanitary mask + sunglasses is also a trick widely used by celebrities to try concealing their identity from paparazzies.
As a recent example, Carlos Ghosn hid his face with a sanitary mask when released from pre-trial custody on March 5th, 2019, after 108 days in detention.
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 masks 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, Disney, or Sailor Moon design or with vampire teeth! Some adults can even sport panty shaped masks!
In Japan alone, millions of antibacterial masks are sold every year.