There has never been a time in history when masks get more attention than they do today. Due to the global pandemic of COVID-19, most people around the world are covering more than half of their faces when they go outside for “essential activities”. Wearing a mask is becoming an international standard, as well as keeping social distance, even in countries where masks were not recognised as casual before the pandemic.
By traveling back and forth, I have experienced a cultural difference between Japan and other countries, especially European ones, regarding masks. Unlike in Europe, where masks are for serious illness, masks have been a part of our daily life in Japan for multiple reasons. Many Japanese people suffer from hay fever in spring. As pollen particles are relatively big, masks can filter them, which prevents them from going through the human bodies.
Influenza is another factor which makes people wear masks, especially in winter. You might think that influenza goes around everywhere in the world, but when it comes to the Japanese case, it is a little bit more serious matter. Unlike the western educational system, Japanese schools start a new year in April. Thus, students need to take entrance exams in winter, which is the perfectly matching season with the influenza epidemic. Sadly, Japanese culture still values which schools they go to rather than what they study, so entrance exams can change the future paths students are going through. This makes people around Japan very sensitive about getting influenza, not only for themselves but also their family members who are getting ready for a new chapter of their life.
These two seasonal illnesses are strong reasons why unlike in Europe, masks are not the symbol of serious sickness in Japan. Thus, Japanese people wear masks when they have a slight cold in order not to spread the sickness to others. As a consequence of this casualness, masks are even used by Japanese women when they are not wearing any makeups and they want to hide most of their faces. Many Japanese celebrities often wear masks when they go out to hide who they are. These are minor reasons for people to wear masks, but definitely a slice of Japanese culture.
Although it is not a new idea for Japanese people to wear masks, the pandemic of COVID-19 has revealed the fundamental nature of Japan. I have repeatedly seen news reports saying masks are not meant to protect you from getting the corona virus but to prevent you from spreading what you might have. COVID-19 is a new challenge we humans are facing and we have not yet gained a complete set of information about what it is. We are not even sure if we have the virus or not as not every patient has the symptom. In this situation, wearing masks is an action to protect and care about others.
Unlike other nations, Japan is not on lockdown. Prime Minister Abe has announced “the state of emergency” which does not have any legal biding force, but just politely asks people to stay home as much as possible. Technically, people can still go to work or open their business if they wish and go outside as much as they want because there is no fine or penalty. Still, many people choose not to, so that the society can go back to the normal condition as soon as possible. It is surreal to see the image of an empty Tokyo on TV, and it is even more surprising that this is thanks to the collective decision made by people, companies, business, schools, and so on. There are still new cases found in Japan, but the number is getting smaller every day. I hope compassion, which is a part of the beautiful Japanese culture, can help us overcome this difficult time.