Westerners have long associated Japan with masks, in particular, the masks of the Classical Noh Theater, which have become, along with Mt Fuji and the Great Buddha of Kamakura, one of the iconic images of The Land of The Rising Sun. This came about not only because these masks are sublime artistic achievements representative of Japan’s rich and unique cultural heritage, but also because they came to symbolize, for various foreign observers, what was taken to be (mistakenly, of course) the INSCRUTABILITY of the Japanese people. Numerous books related to Japan, whether scholarly, literary, or commercial have their covers adorned with these instantly recognizable Nohmen (Noh masks), and the same images can be found on travel posters, brochures, etc.
First time visitors to Japan, especially those who are here during winter or spring, cannot help but be greatly surprised, when they actually DO look around and find… a NATION MASKED! This is because no matter where one goes (in winter and spring), there are large numbers of masked people: masked men, masked women, masked children, masked families on outings, masked couples out for romantic strolls, people doing all sorts of jobs you would never imagine doing… while masked!!
These are not Noh or festival masks, of course. I suppose that they can most accurately be described as being surgical masks, like those worn by doctors during operations. The whole face, beneath the eyes, is covered by a piece of material which is kept in place by loops which fit around the ears. This can make people virtually unrecognizable. How many times has it happened to me, that someone, obviously an acquaintance who has recognized me, waves and rushes over for some small talk, forgetting however, to take off the mask and reveal his/her identity! I always have to feverishly scour the regions of my brain which deal with voice and eye-brow recognition (these people are also usually wearing hats!), and hopefully I can have a flash realization of just who it is I am talking to. More often then not, after parting, all I can do is mutter the old adage, “Who was that masked man anyway?”
As you can imagine from the above, one of the most frequently asked questions I get from newcomers to Japan and tourists is, “Why do Japanese people wear these masks?”
Well, the answer is… for all sorts of reasons. In spring, when masks are most common, they are used to protect the allergic minions from pollen, especially cedar pollen (after the deforestation which occurred doing the war, mountains were reforested almost exclusively with the fast growing cedar, which has become the bane of the hay fever suffering millions). Besides keeping out plant based allergens they can also be protection from yellow dust (kosa) which blows over from China, creating haze and irritating our noses and throats.
Masks for kids
Masks are still of course worn for the same reason they were when they were first sold to the Japanese public, way back in 1919: preventing the spread of colds, especially influenza. With the spread of the Spanish Flu and the deaths of tens of millions around the world, any rumor of oncoming influenza epidemics after that sent people to the store for a supply of masks. It was after the flu of 1934 that masks really became a standard feature of Japanese winters, as mask makers introduced a variety of cheap, comfortable and effective products (they had previously been cumbersome and had wires in them which would rust after being breathed on for a while).
Masks are worn today by those who don’t want to catch a cold (students preparing for entrance exams, pregnant mothers, etc.) and in accordance with simple common sense and consideration in Japan, by those who have a cold, so that they don’t give it to others.
Some just use the masks to keep their faces warm on cold and windy days (it works better than a scarf), or to keep their throats moist during Japan’s dry winters.
There are now many types of specialized masks available on the market: those which keep out pollen or yellow dust, those effective for the flu, etc.
And let’s not forget one more important use they can be put to: helping one stay anonymous and inscrutable!