The mask

A typical image that Westerners have of Japan, is a subway car filled with business men and school girls, all wearing white surgical masks.

Mouthmask on the train in Japan
Someone wearing a mouth mask on the train in Japan

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.

Mask on the train in Japan
Salaryman wearing a mouth mask

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!

Mask on the train in Japan
Cute mask with pink bows on it. Sorry for the blurry picture. It was a sneak photograph on the train.

12 thoughts on “The mask

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    1. If you mean the surgical masks from the pictures, yes you see them often in Japan. But you don’t ever see Noh masks. I think they are only used for Noh plays.

  1. Hello Dennis and Helena,

    First of all, you have a very interesting blog. I think we have a lot in common, like living in Belgium and blogging about Japan. =)
    A few years ago on a school trip, a group of Japanese tourists with masks strolled along the street and I heard some classmates say: “That’s actually quite rude, thinking that our air is polluted while their’s isn’t better off.”
    So I was surprised by the fact that Belgians even didn’t know why those masks were used. If wearing them wouldn’t attract so much attention here, I would wear them for sure. At least it would reduce my sense of guilt for spreading contamination by sneezing around all day…

    Greetings, Ann-Sofie

    1. Hi Ann-Sofie,

      Thanks for commenting! It is great to find another Belgian Japan-o-holic out there! I will definitely follow your blog. I am sure I will learn a lot from your in-depth knowledge of Japan, thanks to your studies. When I was still studying in Leuven myself, I would sometimes attend events of the Japan Studies faculty.

      I totally agree about the masks. Last December when everyone on the train was collectively sniffing away, I really wished it would be more acceptable to wear a mask in Belgium as well.

      Hope to ‘see’ you around in the blogosphere.


  2. Yeah, I agree. Wearing a mask in the winter really helps to keep you warm too, eh??

    The first time I got a pack of masks though I guess I got the kiddie version. They didn’t cover my nose and mouth at the same time. 😦 It was my first time so I couldn’t figure out why why my face was so much larger than a Japanese face. ^^;

  3. I think I would probably need to wear one during allergy season. But I am sure it takes getting used to. I have used masks when working in a hospital and I hate that hot face feeling you get with them.

    1. I don’t have allergies myself but I have heard stories of other Europeans who had hay fever in Europe, but didn’t have allergies in Japan. And I have heard similar stories about Japanese people in Europe. Supposedly it is because the pollen in Japan and Europe (and probably the US as well) are different.

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