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Jump on any train walk down any street or enter any workplace in urban Japan and you’ll find many people hiding the lower half of their faces. With so many people wearing surgical masks, it can make first-time visitors to the country feel like Japan is one big hospital ward, or a nation of hypochondriacs, determined to keep germs at bay. Yet plenty of perfectly well everyday folk adorn their faces with these medical masks daily.
So what’s going on? Sure, some of the mask-wearers are actually ill and want to avoid spreading their germs. It’s a matter of common courtesy in Japan that people who cough, sneeze, sniffle or just have general lurgies should cover up to avoid spreading their nasties to those around them. Others may choose to wear a mask to avoid hay fever or pollen allergies, which are rife in Japan.
But common courtesy in this country goes beyond just avoiding contagion. In a society that emphasises the importance of visual presentation, perfectly healthy Japanese women may choose to wear masks if they forgot or did not have the time to wear makeup. Some people also put it on just to help maintain the skin’s moisture level, especially in winter when the air is dry.
Somewhat inevitably, given its increased usage, the surgical mask has become a fashion item in its own right. A well-chosen mask can represent alluring mystery, allowing others to imagine the beautiful face that hides behind it. When combined with meticulously set hair and eye makeup, the mask becomes part of an individual’s personal style. If you want to make a statement, you’re going to eschew a standard bland white mask. Instead, you can find colourful face-coverings such as character masks, which are sold in speciality shops and sometimes seen wrapped around the mouths and noses of hip young millennials.