Mask Culture in Japan: Protected Before and During the Pandemic

Coronavirus, or COVID-19, has caught the entire world in its grasp. People in nearly every country have had to make some serious life adjustments and changes in the face of this global pandemic as they fight not just to contain the virus and keep others safe, but also to protect themselves. While the impact of the virus has been largely negative and resulted so far in failing economies and healthcare systems, numerous deaths, and high unemployment, it has taught the world a few things about hand-washing, coughing etiquette, and generally good hygiene.

One change that many people across the globe have had to adapt to is wearing a mask outside of their home. Before Coronavirus, people—especially in Western countries—were hardly ever seen wearing surgical masks, homemade masks, and other face coverings when they left their house. In fact, doing so could result in a lot of unwanted negative attention, questions, and stares. Now not wearing a mask is more likely to earn you those things. But for anyone who has spent time in Japan, wearing masks in public is a very normal part of everyday life. But why do Japanese people wear masks even when the world is not suffering in a global pandemic? We will look at a few reasons below, and see how Japan has continued to adapt its mask-wearing culture in the face of COVID-19.

Are You Hiding, or Is It Fashion?

So why have Japanese people been wearing masks out in public for years? There are a lot of reasons, actually. The simplest one is that Japan is a very densely populated country, especially in big cities like Tokyo. There are a lot of people crammed into commuter trains every day, and the streets are very crowded. Especially during flu season, people wear masks to avoid getting sick in unavoidably close quarters. Japan also has a very high percentage of people who suffer from hay fever multiple times a year, which results in a lot of coughing and sneezing. Out of respect for others, many Japanese people wear a mask to keep their symptoms to themselves (and did you know its actually rude in Japan to blow your nose in public?).

After those clear-cut reasons, the prevalence of mask-wearing in Japan gets a little harder to understand. Masks offer a barrier between a person and the public, allowing people to hide their feelings and emotions easier. In a culture that doesn’t praise individualism, it’s easier to blend in as part of the crowd when you can wear a mask that covers half of your face. It’s harder to read one’s feelings and can hide embarrassing emotional reactions like blushing. Masks are really common in high schools, protecting vulnerable young people from showing their emotions too clearly to others.
For some people, masks are part of their fashion. Customised masks are widely available featuring popular characters, animal mouths, and other patterns and motifs. Some people feel that a mask makes them appear cuter, cooler, or more mysterious depending on the type of mask they wear and the vibe they are going for. And since it’s very normal to wear masks in Japan, they are a normal part of fashion coordinates for a lot of people.
It’s not a part of normal Japanese culture that makes it into anime very often (presumably because it’s harder to animate the character’s expression) but masks are featured sometimes, especially in slice of life and modern anime! You can even buy them for your character in Japan’s current biggest contribution to the otaku world, Animal Crossing!

Masks in the Time of Coronavirus

Predictably, mask-wearing in Japan with COVID-19 on the loose has gone up even more. Whereas around half of the people out in public would have been wearing a mask this past season due to hay fever, flu, or personal reasons, nearly everyone is now. And much like the rest of the world, Japan has been suffering from a severe mask shortage at the stores. A lot of jobs currently require employees to wear masks at all times, and announcements ring through train stations in several languages encouraging people to wear them on public transport. So following the trend of the rest of the world, Japan is wearing masks now more than ever.
As a response, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has offered to send two reusable masks to every household in Japan to help with the mask crisis. If you think that doesn’t sound like enough masks, well, you aren’t alone. Hours after the declaration, Japanese Twitter users had already created countless memes about the two mask “solution,” including a few great anime-related ones. Please enjoy a couple of our favourites because we could all use a laugh in these trying times.

Final Thoughts

Masks have been a very normal part of Japanese culture for many years, and will continue to be long after COVID-19 has finally gone on its way. While the rest of the world may well abandon the practise of wearing masks in public, Japan will keep it up. Whether someone is using it to hide their feelings, look a little cuter or more mysterious, dealing with hay fever, or just honestly trying to protect themselves from germs in a densely populated country, Japan has been wearing masks long before it was “cool” in the rest of the world.

Have you adopted the practise of wearing a mask now? Do you think you will continue to do so after Coronavirus is gone? How do you feel about mask-wearing culture? Have you ever seen it in anime? Let’s talk in the comments!

YuuriMask Mask Culture in Japan: Protected Before and During the Pandemic


Author: Jet Nebula

Living the dream in Tokyo, where you can find me working at a theme café catered towards women. When I’m not writing for Honey’s, I’m working on original dystopian science fiction or blogging about Tokyo’s trendy coffee scene. I spend my free time in Harajuku and Shibuya wearing alternative Japanese street fashion. I love video games, J-rock, tattoos, and Star Wars.

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