Last winter, when a new coronavirus started to spread in Asia, and later in the world, my Chinese and Hong Konger friends and acquaintances quickly implored me to wear a surgical mask.
I was a bit confused about their insistence. I didn’t know nor care much about masks, but the main thing I knew about them (from doctors) was that they were designed to prevent your germs to spread around, and didn’t do much to prevent random germs from infecting you.
And as I’ve lived in Japan for quite a few years now, I also knew that, in this country, the surgical face mask mostly has a social function, not so much a medical one.
Don’t get me wrong, when a postwar government decided to cover the country with cedar, they effectively turned the entire archipelago into an allergy hotbed in the process, and since then a big part of the population has suffered from hay fever and needs to wear face masks to protect themselves from the pollen every Spring. But as far as germ protection goes? Nah…
I often hear from the West: “Japanese people are so respectful of their peers that when they’re sick, they wear face masks to protect other people around them.”
Yeah. No. Not really.
I hate to destroy your dream about Japanese people, but they’ll only care about others if there is a risk (shame being a strong one) or reward in doing so. Otherwise, they’ll be nice, sure, but they won’t care.
People who wear face masks during cold season or flu season in Japan do it because:
- They think it will protect them from getting sick. (despite the fact that the mask won’t protect you much if at all – spoiler alert, every winter the flu is as spread out in Japan as it is in countries not wearing masks).
- It’s the thing to do.
And the point #2 is the important one here. In Japan, you do judge a book by its cover. So when it’s flu season, people wear a mask to show that they’re mindful of the situation, that they’re not careless nor selfish about it. Show is the keyword. It’s all about social posture and not so much about what the reality of the situation is.
In Japan, more often than not, the appearance of something is more important than whether the thing is real or not.
Hence the importance of uniforms in Japan. Uniforms literally define your social function.
My favorite example if the Prime Minister’s dress code.
In regular times, he wears an expensive suit like every other world leader. But in times of crisis, he’ll wear something fitting the situation. For example, remember after the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, every time members of the government appeared in public, they wore a jumpsuit similar to the emergency workers’ attire. Why? To show that they were focused on the situation, that they were serious about it. A suit would be unseemly then. (here is an interesting article about this)
And right now, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic? The Prime Minister will always wear a mask, even when making a speech with no one close enough to him to justify wearing a mask. Removing it would be a sign of carelessness.
Actually, note that he got criticized for not wearing one at first. He’s worn one every time he’s in public ever since.
But more on the Prime Minister’s masks in a little while.
Back to my friends from the continent. I was kinda baffled by their insistence, especially because they know Japan. I thought that, maybe, in their respective countries, masks mattered more. After all, some days, the air is barely breathable there, and the SARS epidemic a while ago was quite serious and maybe masks protected against that virus? Maybe. I don’t know.
Then, the situation evolved, the pandemic became what it is now, and I came to understand that face masks do have some sort of usefulness if both the virus-carrier and the virus-free person wear one, it seriously reduces chances of transmission. It was also established that symptom-free people could also transmit the virus. So, overall it’s just safer and wiser for all to wear one in social situations.
So, I started to wear one… Sometimes… If I needed to interact with someone who is not family or a close co-worker… It means rarely more than a few minutes a day, usually.
Before you get horrified by my carelessness (are you Japanese?), I need to underline that there are a few factors to take into account here.
- Somehow, Japan seems a bit less affected than many other countries. I suspect the lack of physical contact between people helps prevent the virus from spreading as fast as in hugging-kissing-shaking-hands countries – there are also hypotheses that some strains of BCG vaccines used in Japan and a few other countries, but not in the West could help against catching the virus. But the truth is that we have no idea of what’s going on and we’ll most likely only know the “truth” in several years, after the facts.
- My area only has had 30 or so confirmed cases at the moment.
- Caveat about the previous two points: Japan also barely tests anyone. You will only get tested if you are quite sick, or are known to have been in direct contact with a person who has tested positive). If you carry the virus but are not getting sick, chances that you can be tested are basically zero. Even if it’s more than likely that you have been infected, no symptoms = no testing. Mild symptoms? No testing. Sick? Maybe you’ll get tested… If your situation is dire.
So we really have no idea of how widespread the virus really is.
- I have been social distancing even before it became a thing. Between mid-February and the end of March, it was Spring vacation for university students in Japan, so I spent most of these days alone in my office, being in contact with one or two people a day beyond my family, on most days.
I’ve had many more social contacts (much much more than I wish I had) since the beginning of April though.
However, for the past week and for at least another week, we’re now in “soft lock-down” (Japanese law can’t force anyone to stay home, but we’re warmly advised to do so, also many places – but not all – are closed at the moment – including the university.
In other words, while the chances that I contract the virus are definitely not null, they’ve been pretty small overall.
So, I’m still not totally convinced that I need to wear a face mask at the moment. However, I started wearing one in situations that could be unsafe or, more frequently, in situations where people may be quite unhappy to see me without one (never forget that the social importance of masks trumps their medical one in Japan).
However, I wasn’t too sure how to wear a mask. Having done it only once in my life before and for less than a hour (the doctor stuck a mask on my face a few years ago when I got a bad cold or something like this – I took it off as soon as possible – come on, it was a cold!). So, I decided to do what I usually do in Japan, learning about a social practice: observe and imitate.
And here is what I learned about
How to wear a surgical mask,
I told you a few lines ago that Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, has started to wear a mask in public recently, or at least as soon as there are cameras around. The point is, of course, that he’s leading by example and all that.
However, you may have noticed that it’s a pretty peculiar mask. It’s made of fabric and not of paper, and it’s just too small to properly cover the lower half of the face. Does it serve any protective purpose? I’m not going to venture into giving a positive answer to that question.
So, why does he insist on wearing that peculiar mask exactly?
Because it is the infamous Abenomask!
See, the first (and for a while, only) measure the Prime Minister announced that it would take back when the numbers of infected people in Japan finally officially rose (just after the Olympics were
cancelled postponed, definitely a coincidence) was that the government would send – to every household in Japan – not one, but two reusable masks!
They were quickly nicknamed Abenomasks. It literally means “Abe’s masks” in Japanese, but it also rhymes with Abenomics, you know, the whole series of measures that Abe put in place when he became Prime Minister for the second time, in order to have Japan’s economy finally raise above the stagnation it’s been in for decades now. The only concrete result the people in Japan saw? Sales tax (aka the worst of all taxes) rose from 4% to 10%. The rest? Oh, I’m sure the Japanese oligarchy benefitted from some of it, but for the common people, the benefits of Abenomics were nowhere to be found.
A little bit like the Abenomasks…
First the measure was ridiculous, then it became shady. When the time came to name the companies that are going to make and provide the masks, only three out of the four were made public. Nobody knows why the fourth one hasn’t been – but knowing Abe and the Japanese government, some illegal nepotism must be at play somehow. They’re just waiting for everyone to forget about it and they’ll get away with it (not the first time, not the last time – Abe is almost a specialist)
And to add insult to injury, as of today, almost no one in the country has received the Abenomasks. Of course, they will cost a lot of public money that could have been used for… I don’t know… More tests? (Japan is one of the countries that tests the least among all of OECD countries) More hospital beds? No… Masks… That are nowhere to be found.
It’s not like it matters anyway, seeing their size, and seeing my nose, there is no way I can wear those, they’re just to small for me.
Indeed, not every person in Japan (or even Japanese person) has a short nose. Sometimes wearing a mask puts some unpleasant pressure on the nose. Not mentioning that it’s kinda hard to breathe through a mask sometimes.
Funny anecdote: my office is in the fourth floor. Every time I wear a mask and climb the stairs, I’m totally out of breath when I reach my office, and I’m starting to fear that the symptoms of Covid-19 are starting to appear. Then, I remember that I’m wearing a mask – my breathing is just fine without one, even after four flights of stairs.
Don’t worry, though, Japanese people have a method for these issues.
2. How to wear a mask in Japan if you have a long nose or trouble breathing through it?
Just wear it like this:
If your nose is too long, or if breathing is difficult, do what the vast majority of Japanese people do: just don’t cover your nose with the mask. This is definitely one of the most common ways to wear a mask in Japan.
However, sometimes, it’s not enough. Sometimes, wearing a mask is just annoying (I noticed that after a few minutes, my lips start drying up for example). Or, you need to eat or drink, or use a toothpick, or bite your nails, or something else.
You can’t take the mask off, though. Remember, not wearing a mask is bad! It shows that your selfish and careless. We can’t have that. So…
3. How to wear a mask in Japan if you need to eat, drink, use a toothpick, bite your nail, or are simply annoyed with the mask on your face?
Just wear it like this:
This is probably the second most common way you’ll see people wearing masks in Japan. What? They’re still wearing one! The social norm hasn’t been broken. Society is safe, or at least, you’re not the one putting it in danger.
Also, you have to admit. This has a certain flair… Kinda makes you look like a surgeon who just saved a sick child from a previous incurable disease or something, doesn’t it?
Finally, I need to be fair. A lot of Japanese people (maybe almost half of them) do wear masks properly. The problem is when it’s time to take it off and they do this:
Spoiler alert: if a mask has actually protected you from catching some germs, they didn’t magically disappear. Instead of being in your nose and mouth, the germs are now all over the mask. Never touch a mask when you take it out!
So, you understand now why I’m not totally sold on the “Japanese people are less hit by the virus because they’re used to wear masks” thing I’m hearing quite a bit.
I’m also hearing a lot about masks in the West nowadays, and I’m not sure how people handle them. Hopefully, not like Japanese people as they tend to be over-reliant on them, and at the same time misuse and mistreat them a lot.
Over and over again, it gives them a false sense of security, and social distancing pretty much becomes optional in their mind when they’re wearing a mask.
Remember, social distancing and hand washing are way more important than wearing masks in this ordeal.
Yes, masks sometimes matter. If you’re stuck in a room with several people, those sorts of situations. Please, by all means, wear one when you go shopping, if you have to take public transportation and similar activities.
When just having a walk in your neighborhood? In your car? No, not really…
Especially not if you’re not used to wear one and you’re going to misuse it – like that one time I wore one for longer than usual, and my first instinctive reaction as soon as I took it off was to rub my face with both hands… before washing them… A stupid thing that I would never have done if I hadn’t worn a mask in the first place (and this is probably the dumbest thing I’ve done since this pandemic has started).
In other words:
Practice social distancing,
Wash your hands.
Those are the things that matter most. Wear a mask too if you want, but only after doing those first.