Surgical masks. To Westerners, they can conjure images of Japanese citizens waiting for their trains, tidily dressed and all the while donning white masks covering half their faces. At first glance, one might wonder, “Why do Japanese wear masks like that? Are they all that afraid of getting sick?” It’s a question I honestly wondered myself when I first started living here. The answer, however, is a bigger picture than I’d thought.

Not only relegated to flu season or fears of catching colds, masks have become a regular part of Japanese society. They’ve evolved to carry a wider definition, some not having anything to do with health reasons at all. Why then, are there so many masks in Japan? Does it really help? Let’s take a look at why they’re so important.

Five reasons behind the mask

1. Health

First and foremost is health. One of the biggest factors Japanese wear masks isn’t some outwardly self-preserving case of thinking everybody else is sick, but rather the opposite. Often times, it’s to prevent one’s own germs or sickness from spreading in public places; a critical point in the often extremely densely populated cities of Japan. As of 2015, Tokyo has a population of 9.273 million. This is Tokyo. One city. To put it more in perspective, the country of Japan is approximately the size of the state of California. In fact, it’s a bit smaller, but with about 89 million more people in Japan than in California—the state with the US’s biggest population.

With this many people packed into this small of an area, risk of contagion and disease is much higher. Japanese are taught the importance of prevention at an early age. When I worked in the public school system, it was all over the walls and bulletin boards as posters advocating personal hygiene. Students were made to wear masks when they participated in serving lunch to their peers, and it was always okay to wear a mask at any time if they felt they might be sick.

Public toilets encourage everyone maintain a high level of cleanliness in order to respect themselves and others. Not doing so is considered disrespectful—and you don’t want to be disrespectful in Japan! It’s therefore more a point of making sure others don’t get sick, as opposed to making sure one doesn’t get sick. Makes sense, right?

Japanese women serving food wear masks

2. Dust and pollen

Aside from diseases, masks are a good defense against dust and pollen, especially in spring. Masks do filter out a large part of pollen particles, considering that these particles are fairly large. This is especially important from those suffering from asthma or pollen allergies.

Particulate matter 2.5, or PM 2.5, is the dust that causes pollution. It’s 2.5 micrometers. That’s small enough to sit in your body and cause diminished lung and heart function, asthma, and all kinds of complications. It comes from industrialization: coal, vehicles, chemical processes. With a proper mask, a majority of PM 2.5 can be safely filtered. Japanese morning news shows usually have a PM 2.5 rating for the day, warning everyone to wear masks on especially dangerous days.

3. Covering up

There are simpler reasons as well. Some Japanese wear masks to hide physical imperfections, or on days they just don’t want to use make-up. Masks cover hard-to-hide situations like pimples, zits, or scars. It’s an easy quick fix when you just want to cover yourself up for the day.

A Japanese girl wearing a mask with a colorful design

4. Fashion

It may seem a bit of a mystery to Westerners, but masks as fashion have become a major part of the Japanese world. A recent 2011 poll by Japanese news site News Post Seven surveyed 100 people in Tokyo and learned that 30 percent of Japanese wear masks for reasons not having to do with sickness. Originally seen as embarrassing and only to be worn if absolutely necessary, modern masks are now designed in a variety of colors and shapes to fit fashion trends. 3-D masks (立体 マ ス ク rittai masuku) that protrude and conform to the face are functional and aesthetically pleasing.

That’s not to say the original white masks aren’t cool anymore. You’ll still find plenty of those. In addition, there are pink masks for the Lolita girl subculture, studded black ones for metal fans, anime print masks, the list goes on. Many say the mask gives them a mysterious look, drawing in attention as they walk down the busy streets. Others say it hides their mouth, and for them that’s a good thing. Whatever the case, more and more young people are using masks for everyday fashion reasons. Come over and walk around the cities. You’ll see for yourself!

5. Social anxiety

On a more personal note, some Japanese wear masks as a way to add a degree of separation between society and themselves. As a reserved culture very conscious of the judgement of others, those who are shy and lacking in self-esteem sometimes wear masks to hide from the bustling world.

Not reserved solely to prevent the spread of disease, masks have made their way into the Japanese mainstream, and are here to stay. It may seem quite different from the standards of health and fashion to the Western world, but it works over here!

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