If you visit Japan in winter, you might find it strange that so many Japanese people are wearing surgical face masks.
You see lots of people with their face covered with white masks on train, on street, in the office, onboard the airplane … basically everywhere.
Why do they do that?
For most cases, they are either trying to avoid catching any viruses or trying not to pass their cold to others as a caring posture.
If you see them in the airplane cabin, chances are that they do so for keeping their throat moisturized. Cabin air is very dry. Its humidity level is as low as 20%. I also sometimes feels like wearing it just for the sake of protecting my throat, too.
In any case, since it looks as if they are trying to hide their identity in westerners’ eyes, it may look strange to many of you. But in fact, it does not look strange for Japanese eyes. We do not perceive it as something negative.
Stop at a local drug store and look for face masks. They sometimes sell a pack of 100 disposable face masks for 500 yen (about 4.50USD) or so. If you buy a box, it can last a season for a family.
I think this trend has started because of three factors.
1. Commuting on crowded train and/or bus makes it easy to catch cold from someone surrounding you.
When you are on a crowded train, you can easily be within 30cm of 5 people. When someone facing you coughs, you have no way of avoiding it. That person may not be able to pull his/her arm to cover their mouth, either. So, people with a cold put on a mask as a courtesy to fellow passengers. Those who don’t want to catch a cold put on a mask as a precaution.
2. School entrance exams being held in January and February when flu virus is very prevalent.
At school, the situation is similar. When you have an entrance exam coming up, you want to do everything possible to stay away from flu viruses. Entrance exams are big milestones for young people in Japan. If you fail, you have to wait at least one year to try again. So, not only students, but teachers and family members wear face masks as a preventive measure.
3. Cedar Pollen allergy is very common these days.
16% of Japanese are allergic to cedar pollen.
The number rises to 48% in Tokyo! Why? Because most of roads are surfaced in cities, pollens have nowhere to go and keep floating in the air.
They sell special kinds of masks that don’t let pollens pass through.
Sometimes you can tell when people are wearing masks for this purpose, because they will likely to wear goggle to cover their eyes, too.
Cedar pollen is at its peak in March.
It is a part of Japanese culture now. It is nothing negative, but is a positive caring posture to others in many cases.