If you’re visiting Tokyo this winter you may be alarmed by how many people are wearing surgical masks like a scene from 28 Days Later. Don’t worry, the apocalypse isn’t coming. They either just have a cold or are protecting themselves from catching one.
As the temperature in Tokyo starts to fall, the flu bug starts to bite and many Japanese have already started coughing and spluttering. Being members of a considerate, collective society, the salarymen – who wouldn’t dream of taking a day off work because of a cold – instead pull on a mask over their mouth and nose to protect the world from their germs.
Wearing a mask is one of the Japanese ways of not spreading the virus to everyone, although there have been many debates regarding its effectiveness.
Health institutions say that is better to rest if you feel sick or have the flu and remind us the importance of handwashing regularly with soap and warm water, so even though masks may be good for prevention and not spreading the virus, is important to keep in mind that resting at home in order to recover is the best way to not spread it to others.
Whether or not these flimsy white contraptions do anything to stop the spread of said germs is a matter for debate but it’s the thought that counts. The manufacturers will claim that the fine layers of fiber block the spreading of viruses, but the sheer number of mask-wearing businessmen across Tokyo during winter serves as proof that the viruses are still being spread somehow.
It is more than likely because when Japanese people are sick they very rarely stay at home to rest and during those 12-hour shifts in the office, germs will surely be spreading, mask or no mask. Most Japanese workers have the tendency to feel unbearably guilty for calling in sick which means more coughing and spluttering on packed trains rather than having to endure having to explain being sick to their colleagues.
It’s all great business for the drug stores which are everywhere in the city selling all kinds of remedies from painkillers, energy drinks, hangover cures and of course, surgical masks. There are around 400 million masks sold in Japan every year, although not all are because the wearer is worried about contaminating everyone around them.
Fashion designers have latched on to the lucrative industry, marketing masks for ‘show’ (date masuku) to hide blemishes, to cover your face when you don’t have time to put make-up on or simply as another accessory to adorn yourself with.
They come in all different designs and colours although by far the most common, especially among the salarymen is the standard white. Try to stay clear as under that mask is more than likely thousands of germs and bacteria just itching to find their way to you. Although that may be easier said than done if you’re riding around on a packed Tokyo train.