Surgical/Medical Masks in Japan

Something that I thought would be appropriate to discuss was the use of surgical masks in Japan. I can’t speak for other Asian countries, but we tend to see lots of images of Asian people, in general, in surgical masks going about their daily routines. Many in the west scratch their head and ask “Why?” Well, here’s what I’ve been able to piece together.

Reasons to Wear a Mask

Let’s do a quick rundown of the reasons, shall we?

1. No makeup days

This one I’ve only heard from young women, but men who wear makeup could take this route as well. When women don’t want to do their makeup, they simply cover their face with a surgical mask. Sometimes, the simplest explanation really is just as it seems.

2. Allergies

Another common usage, especially in Spring and to a less extent, Autumn, is to block allergens from making you sneeze, cough, and feel pretty bad. But does this really work? Or is it a placebo effect?

This mask is having a rough day…

Well, this will also tie into wearing the mask to prevent illness, but the short answer is probably not. See, surgical masks don’t offer a whole lot of protection against small particles in the air. The University of Michigan has a nice description of how masks are used in regards to animal allergens. Surgical masks are usually used in the opposite direction: Preventing your stuff from infecting or contaminating other stuff. You know, to keep the room as sterile as possible during surgery. Hence the name, surgical mask. Kind of obvious, no? So then why do people wear them during outbreaks? Well…

3. Illness

Here’s the big daddy: Wearing a mask to prevent illness. Spoilers: It won’t help in the way you think it will. Unless you’re wearing some heavy-duty N95 mask, you’re not really protected. I mean, just look at the crimping of the surgical mask around some people’s faces. There’s a direct path right into their safety zone from the side of the mask! Sick people wearing those masks can help stop spreading their illness by providing extra shielding from their moisture (via breathing or sneezing or coughing), but it doesn’t work so well the other way around.

Fun fact: Most people are wearing masks completely incorrectly, according to medical mask manufacturer, Medicom. You’re supposed to put the knots facing outward, not inward. The more you know!

So why bother? It could be sociological. I listened to the Podcast On The Media and they had an episode with a medical anthropologist who said wearing a mask could be a performative gesture. Think about it: By wearing the mask, you signal to your community and culture that you are responsible, taking the appropriate steps to ensure the health and safety of society at large. Not wearing a mask could be construed as selfish, irresponsible, or worst. Given how group-oriented Japanese society is, sticking out unnecessarily is not something you want to do, so wearing a mask is an easy way to avoid shaming and scrutiny from your social peers.

And with that, my armchair investigation into masks in Japan is complete! I’m hoping to dedicate more time to actual cultural masks in the future, but for now, given the current climate, I thought this would be a fine filler. What do you think? Are you feeling pressure to wear a mask where you are? Let me know in the comments!

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