Why do Japanese people always wear surgical masks?
Many visitors coming to Japan for the first time have asked this question. Used to seeing masks only in hospitals, they have wondered why in Japan they seem to be a common item for everyone. Simple white surgical masks have always been sold in every convenience store and 100 yen store in Japan, easily available and cheap. There are varying sizes, colours and designs, including cute masks designed for children. Going out with a mask on has never been a huge deal as there are many reasons to wear one.
Of course, the obvious one is wearing a mask when you have a cold for instance. Japanese people often use surgical masks when they get sick or when they do not feel well. They tend to wear surgical masks not only for serious sickness such as flu, but also for common colds. Needless to say, if you have the flu, you are too exhausted to go out very much because of the fever. But the times you do go out to get something, or if you go to work at the end of your flu recovery, mask-wearing is a must, so as you do not spread it to others.
Another reason for mask-wearing are allergies. A lot of people in Japan have spring allergies, the biggest culprit being the abundance of cedar trees in the country. Other than surgical masks, there are also many other medical goods for allergies available in the drug stores in Japan – nasal sprays, plastic goggles and so on. Moreover, the weather forecast tells you how much pollen there is in the air in your area, so you can prepare. From all this, you can get an idea of how many Japanese people are affected by hay fever.
Of course, this one is the least surprising and universal around the world. Surgical masks are used by medical staff such as doctors and dentists, just like in the other countries. This is the ordinary way to use them, both to protect the patient and oneself from various infections.
Food preparation should be as hygienic as possible, which is why restaurants around the world are often inspected by the sanitary inspection. In Japan it is no different, and often it’s taken up a few notches with food workers often wearing surgical masks. Surgical masks are used every day by school lunch servers in elementary and junior high schools (high school and university students do not have school lunches).
A reason that is both odd and smart, wearing a mask just to hide yourself is a common reason among Japanese people. Particularly, Japanese girls have said they use surgical masks in order to hide their face without make-up, but regardless of gender many people rely on the mask to hide skin imperfections. Men have said that a mask helps them hide their unshaven face, as in Japan a clean shave is the preferred look. This is very useful if you are going out to quickly run errands so you don’t have to apply make up or shave.
A surgical mask covers and makes your face warm. It saves you from the cold or dry air because of the moisture created with your own breath. It also helps stop your throat from drying out from the air conditioning in public transport, offices, cafes and so on.
All in all, whether it’s to protect yourself, those around you, or both, wearing masks everywhere is a normal daily life thing for people living in Japan. No one jumps to conclusions or judgement, as you never know the reason why someone is wearing a mask. Whatever the reason, it’s either for a good purpose, or for personal issues. It’s like wearing glasses or a scarf – and no one is shocked by how many people wear glasses, are they?