A typical image that Westerners have of Japan, is a subway car filled with business men and school girls, all wearing white surgical masks.
In the West it is considered a bit suspicious to cover your face in public. Masks are usually reserved for bank robbers and superheroes. We think that those Japanese people with their white masks look a bit silly and a bit dodgy.
In Japan, the wearing of such masks is completely normal. They are worn for various reasons: for example when the flu is in town or to avoid catching a cold. People with allergies wear them to avoid ingesting pollen.
When I had just arrived in Japan, those masks took a bit of getting used to. Especially when I was talking to someone who still had their mask on. It is a bit difficult communicating with someone if you can’t really see their face. But of course I got used to it and after a while I didn’t even notice the masks anymore.
I even went as far as wearing one myself at some point. There was a big cloud of yellow dust, pollution from China, travelling over Japan. I had already been coughing for a few days and I also started getting chest pains from an irritated trachea. “That does it”, I said to myself, “it is time for a mask”. And indeed the mask made a big difference. The irritation to my throat and trachea were greatly reduced.
The first time venturing out in public with the mask I felt quite self-conscious. Don’t I look very silly with this thing on my face? But no Japanese looked any different at me. Even my husband didn’t poke fun at me. Wearing such a mask is just very normal in Japan, and I am beginning to understand why!