First time visitors notice them right away: Sickness masks. People in Japan wear them for numerous reasons, including to prevent illness. Some even don them because they think the masks make them more attractive.
But, first, what’s the deal with Japan and sickness masks? For years now, masks have been considered good manners. If you got sick, the polite thing to do was put on a mask so others, especially in crowded urban centers, didn’t catch whatever you have.
They are also protection. If you don’t want to get sick, especially if you’re taking your kids to the doctor or if its flu season, then you wear a mask. During the spring, people with allergies often wear masks to help them through the season.
As Nippon.com explains, Japan’s mask culture started in 1918 during a Spanish flu pandemic, which killed between 257,000 and 481,000 people in Japan. Since then, sales have increased year by year. Now, the country mask companies churn out billions and billions of masks annually.
But Japan’s sickness mask culture goes beyond that. Celebrities, for example, are often known to wear masks while out in public, enabling them to have regular lives and avoid being spotted.
For that same reason, the stereotype is that robbers in Japan often wear sickness masks and sunglasses to hide their identities. Some stores will not allow people wearing both (or motorcycle helmets, for that matter) to enter.
Above is a photo of a robbery training exercise in Hokkaido, Japan. Note the mask and the sunglasses! Oh, and the gun. That’s important.
During the 2009 flu pandemic, even more Japanese people started wearing masks on a regular basis. In the months that followed, some became accustomed to the masks even if they weren’t sick and liked how they offered a privacy shield, similar to the effect sunglasses can offer. Others liked how masks make their faces appear “smaller” and put emphasis on their eyes.
In Japan, many consider having a “small face” as a desirable feature and a large one less so. And thus, even though they do filter out bad air, the “just-for-show mask” (だてマスク or “date masuku”) caught on.
According to a 2011 poll done in Tokyo’s Shibuya, out of a hundred young Japanese women wearing sickness masks, thirty-one of them were wearing them for show.
Around that same time, a woman nicknamed Zawachin was causing waves online with her celebrity impressions. Wearing a sickness mask, she did her eye make-up and hair to look like famous Japanese pop stars and models. Her impersonations showed how sickness masks could be fashionable, and she even produced a line of masks. Scented ones, at that.
These masks were designed with young Japanese women in mind. Other makers have also released scented masks or masks directed at women.
Not all masks are aimed at women, though! Here is a black mask, which is supposed to look cooler, I guess. (There are black masks for women, too.)
Masks continue to evolve and be perfected in Japan. That’s why in 2015, Nikkei reported that there was a new sickness mask called the “Be-Fit Mask.” This is a pun, because here, “be” refers to the kanji character 美 (bi), which means “beauty.” In Japanese, the product name is 美フィットマスク or “Bi Fitto Masuku.” The mask also came in a larger size, which if the packaging featuring a dude illustration was anything to go by, was aimed at men.
There are other form-fitting masks, but this one is the first I’ve seen that says your face will look smaller (on the packaging, even!) and your profile will have a “beautiful line” (in the commercial).
How is it different?
Above is your standard mask, and below is the Be-Fit. The GIANT RED OVAL shows how the sides are shaved, creating a tighter fit. This is designed to give your face a desirable v-shape.
Do you think it looks that different? I guess it does. Perhaps?
This winter a slew of new masks were released in Japan, often targeting very specific needs.
Here’s a mask with lotion that makes your face feel nice.
A mask that smells like Frisk breath mints.
A mask to filter out bad smells on the train.
When I finished moving to Japan at the turn of the century, I never wanted to go outside with a mask. I thought they looked a bit much and were embarrassing. But now that my hay fever allergies have gotten worse, it’s hard to make it through the spring without a mask. Though I think I’ll pass on the stinky train mask.
This article was originally published on November 6, 2015 and has since been updated.
To contact the author of this post, write to bashcraftATkotaku.com or find him on Twitter@Brian_Ashcraft.
Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.