On any given street in Tokyo today, almost everyone will be wearing a mask. The Covid-19 death toll in Japan is around 1,500 in a country of 126 million people. This is dramatically less than the UK’s, yet everyone still covers up, and there are hardly any anti-mask movements of the sort that have become popular in Europe and America.
Why are the Japanese so happy to wear masks, when it makes some people from other nationalities so cross? The first reason is the most obvious: to avoid spreading germs. Not catching germs, mind — spreading germs. It is considered bad manners in Japan to have a cold or a cough without trying to contain the bacteria or viruses being discharged.
Of course, Japanese people, like anyone else, also wish to avoid catching germs. That’s what it says on the poster from the 1920s, pictured above: ‘This man has no care for his own life!’ There’s been much talk about the fact it’s the countries which suffered most from Sars that responded best to the coronavirus, but the Japanese were masking up long before Sars. It was, in part, the Spanish flu pandemic and its aftermath that changed the culture, alongside other significant factors.
In Japan, pollen allergy is a big problem. During the period after the war, the government covered Japan with millions of cedar and cypress trees to supply timber for the construction industry. The unforeseen consequence of all the planting was that every year from about January to May an invisible soup of pollen descends on urban areas and makes the lives of about a quarter of the population a misery. Some Japanese have been known to emigrate to get away from it; others just put on masks.
Odd as it may sound, there are also aesthetic reasons why some Japanese women actively like wearing masks. The country, for instance, has a long--standing taboo about a woman showing the inside of her mouth, which could be in part because of the traditionally terrible state of Japanese teeth. Some McDonald’s restaurants in Japan even provide special pieces of cardboard for women to eat behind, and the cardboard is often printed with a picture of the lower half of a young woman’s face.
There’s a clue here too. In Japan, it’s highly desirable to have a slim, small aspect to your jaw, chin and mouth. It’s considered kawaii, or cute. You may have noticed that in Japanese manga and anime the characters, especially the female ones, have very large eyes but tiny — or nonexistent — noses and chins. If you’re a Japanese woman with a sturdy jaw or a manly chin, you mask-up with great relief.
Masks are beginning to be customised all around the world, but Japan is, unsurprisingly, leading the world in mask art. Fashion is important in Japan and the mask designs are ingenious. There are animal faces, masks with chains hanging from them, masks that glow in the dark, and — my favourite, because of the wit that is integral to the best fashion — a mask that leaves a hole for the mouth. So they’re decorative, and they can be useful when dating too. I remember seeing a woman pointedly put on her mask just at the moment of saying goodbye to her date, as he was leaning in for a kiss. He looked as if she’d hurled a bucket of cold water over him.
That said, in Japan it’s not unsexy to wear a mask. Think of those beautiful old painted fans, and the way Japanese women used them flirtatiously. There’s an idea called chirarism, derived from the word chirari, meaning ‘glance’ or ‘glimpse’. It means covering in order to suggest uncovering. Hiding the face stimulates the erotic imagination in Japan. Imagine the charge between two people when the time comes for them to take off their masks.
When I asked a Japanese friend to tell me what he liked about mask-wearing, he recited a whole host of reasons. They protect against sunburn, he said. Why use high- factor sun cream if you can wear a mask and sunglasses? Also, it’s a great way of putting off unwelcome conversations. It is a cliché that Japanese people are socially shy and introverted, but some of them certainly are, and masks enable them to remove themselves — or at least their mouths and noses — from the social sphere. Japanese people rarely shake hands or hug, preferring to bow. This is, at root, a form of respectful consideration for the personal space of others. A mask feels like an extension of that consideration.
My mother-in-law, who is Japanese, says a mask is an excellent way of directing moisture toward the eyes, especially when the air is dry or there is frost. She claims that this is the main reason why she wears a mask: to ‘give her eyes a bath’.
Is there anything we in the UK can learn from all this? I suppose that’s up to us. One day the data will truly come in as to whether wearing a mask is effective against virus transmission. Until then, we may as well embrace the Japanese way.
spectator.co.uk/podcast - Spectator assistant editor Lara Prendergast and Japanologist Jordan Sand on masks.