Donning a face mask in countries like Japan goes beyond health concerns

Preparing to travel to Japan next week, with the spread of coronavirus slowing but the virus not yet contained, I’ve been given a lot of advice by well-meaning friends that boils down to this: wear a mask. But would I even be able to find one? The New York Times reports that in the US – which at the time of writing had 15 cases in a population of 329 million – “the mask hoarding has begun”.
New York pharmacies have sold out of them; popular sellers on Amazon say mask deliveries will be delayed by weeks.

The phenomenon must be a global one, because a recent cover of The Economist features the planet wrapped in one giant surgical mask. Yet with the exception of heavy duty N95 respirator masks, the authorities have been clear that masks are no more useful than a literal Band-Aid: good at preventing sick people from passing nasty microbes to others, pretty pathetic for protecting the wearer from contracting the virus.

There are, it turns out, even downsides to donning a mask. Because we still have to breathe, they can become moist breeding grounds for bacteria. And as they’re awkward to wear, we may touch our faces more often, which actually increases the risk of contamination.

So why, then, wear one? In parts of Asia, particularly Japan, face masks have become an important part of the national “hygiene culture”, as anyone who has walked down a Tokyo street in the past 10 years will have noticed. Digging into this, I found a 2012 paper published by sociologists Adam Burgess and Mitsutoshi Horii that went some way to answering a question I’d always wondered about. Although face masks were first developed in response to the Spanish flu of 1918-19, they only took hold in Japan in the 1990s, after that country’s financial turmoil – less a response to public health crises, more an affirmation of personal responsibility at a time when trust in institutions was declining.

Sociologists say that over time, the mask also came to represent other cultural values, such as respect and courtesy for others, and delineating personal space in a very crowded society.

They were also a “risk ritual”, which made the wearer feel like they were doing something as SARS (2003), avian flu (2004), swine flu (2009) and the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster (2011) spread. And, of course, there are always the more quotidian reasons: some Japanese interview subjects told the researchers they put one on if they didn’t have time to do make-up in the morning, or because they liked how it obscured their facial expressions on an often quite invasive and sardine-like morning commute.

Peer pressure is also part of the reason why mask-wearing spreads like a disease. Observing the breakout of SARS in Bangkok, academics noticed that travellers arriving in the country would observe large crowds wearing masks, and rush out to buy their own. For those in the West, the recent surge in their popularity may have something to do with a reluctance to follow the very boring advice from health professionals.

Living with one, I’ve determined over time that his solution to most ailments is pretty simple: take a Panadol, and take it easy. In the case of coronavirus, his wisdom was even less thrilling. “Forget the mask,” he said. “Wash your hands. Do it for long enough that you can finish the alphabet song.” Dull, yes. Effective? Certainly.

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