I began writing this as an email but it ended up being a lot more detailed than I initially expected so I have turned it into a post. These are just some of my observations from my time living in Japan where people wearing surgical masks in public is not abnormal even in summer. Though ostensibly done for health reasons, I observed during my time there that there is more to it than that. Ann Barnhardt who inspired this post suspects sinister motives.
As I have shared in other posts, I lived in Japan for about ten years and no doubt to the displeasure of Tokugawa Ieyasu, was also received into the Catholic Church there. If authorities are going to continue to push masks they will likely point out how common it is in Japan in other Asian countries to justify it. The obvious and major difference with Asia and most Western countries is the population density. I lived in a rural town in Japan that had 160,000 residents. I also lived in a rural town in Australia that had less than 400. That gives a good idea of the difference of population density even remembering that most of Australia is all but uninhabited.
As small as Japan looks on a map, it is in reality even smaller due to how mountainous most of the land is. That means well over 100 million people living in very small areas and mostly in the major cities. This naturally makes disease easier to spread but the Japanese are also a famously cleanly people and even their busiest public areas reflect this. I still have contacts in Japan and they only recently started introducing more draconian lock downs and their cases are still low. When you consider high average age in the population as well as their proximity to China, the low cases should give even the most hysterical among us pause for thought.
I did reluctantly wear a mask when I was ill while I lived there as a gesture of respect in their home. But I learned as I got there that there was more to the masks than they will readily admit to. Any book introducing you to Japanese culture will mention their submissive manner towards authority as well as their indirect way of speaking. Many businessmen have had the experience of thinking they’ve made a deal with a Japanese company only to find the outcome the opposite of what they were left to expect after a warm meeting and parting. They rarely make direct statements even in situations where they are called for. While teaching English the phrase, “maybe okay” was common among my students though unused in any English speaking country I am familiar with. The Japanese are also scrupulous about hiding their feelings and what they really believe from others for fear giving offense. Many of these traits can be positive traits in normal situations but certainly not always.
The mask is in many ways a visual display of this cultural trait. I noticed many people — especially women — liked wearing them. I suspect this is because they can hide their face and expressions though their eyes still give them away. I should add here that it is also common to avoid eye contact! Even when not wearing masks, it is common to see Japanese speaking in a low voice with minimal movement of their mouth and many women have a habit of holding their hands over their mouth while they talk; usually when they are gossiping. One of the challenges of teaching them English is getting them to open their mouths properly and enunciate. One could go even further back in their history and point at the veils court women hid behind in the Heian Period as a partial explanation of the psychology behind it. In short, it isn’t just about keeping disease at bay.
Even taking seriously the supposed advantages for public health, my cynical side couldn’t help but notice other reasons. The Japanese will also wear masks to work because it can give the impression to their colleagues and seniors that they are unwell and soldiering on regardless. Men that are hungover from heavy drinking can hide the effects as well as the smell on their breath with a mask too. I am guilty as charged with the latter. The other purpose of the mask is simply to do with the way illness is treated. I found the nation bordering on hysterical every year during flu season — men and women alike. I was many times given explicit instructions to wash my hands in a certain way and wash out my throat to avoid catching influenza after returning from the outdoors. They would send entire classes home from school if a number from the same class got sick and it was possible for an entire school to be on lock down if it got bad enough.
For adults it is even worse because being sick is seen as their fault for not taking proper care of themselves and the Japanese are notorious for working marathon hours which leaves little time to do so properly. Getting seriously ill can mean losing your job and missing any work at all is frowned upon. This is where the mask comes in again and I witnessed many co-workers coming in with fevers or just obviously unwell. This often made them worse than useless to work with as they simply couldn’t function properly. Thankfully in the current situation any fever will be assumed to be the dreaded corona and they will be sent home. As an aside, I am amused imagining their control-freak bosses wanting to obey civil authorities at the same time thoroughly reluctant to allow any of their employees to work from home.
Contrast the above with a competent worker in the West who fell ill. They would take the time off if necessary and come back apologetic and ready to make up for it without a word of reproach from a boss or colleague. A Japanese employee no matter how careful, could find himself apologising profusely for not having a stronger immune system. This cultural attitude would certainly make flu season worse as many people will simply not risk missing work unless they are physically unable to move and even then, can’t rely on much sympathy. Some would question it being this severe but I was given a very hard time with one employer for the one day I had off in my time there and I saw it happen to many others.
It is interesting to note that in my entire time there despite rarely wearing a mask, never getting a flu shot and not taking any of the care, I only once caught a serious case of the flu. This was immediately after returning from a holiday overseas and going straight to work the day I landed.
This is not meant to insult or condemn the Japanese or their work ethic but there is a total lack of charity evident in the way the almost uniformly hard-working people are treated when they become a victim of the elements.
The practice of wearing masks in Japan then has far more to it than the simple reason usually given. It is a symbol of docility, ambiguity, conformity and fear. These are not traits we should seek to emulate.