I have had several friends that have come to visit me in Tokyo ask me why they keep seeing people are wearing cold masks .
“What’s going on…Is it the SARS?”
NO! Not at all!
You would never see anyone in the US wear cold masks unless they were doing something directly related to a medical procedure or cleaning up some sort of nasty chemical. I think it sparks a sense of uneasiness in Americans- it feels like there is some invisible, unknown danger lurking about.
However, cold masks are incredibly commonplace year round. Here are the main reasons you will find Japanese people running around wearing cold masks:
1. You have a cold or allergies:
Imagine you wake up with a nasty case of the sniffles. You aren’t quite sick enough to take time off work, so you mask up on your way out the door in order to prevent coughing and sneezing on the people around you. Remember that many people ride crowded trains and buses to and from work, so how embarrassing and rude would it be if you sneezed on the face of the person that you are crammed next to? It is just a form of consideration to help keep your bodily fluids to yourself.
2. You don’t want to have a cold:
Imagine you are in a train full of snifflers and germs, and when you get to your office it too is also full of coughers and sneezers. While there are some considerate people out there regarding coughing and sneezing, it can’t hurt to have a mask on when a bug is going around. Big offices and schools can a breeding ground for something nasty. Some people will argue that it won’t really prevent catching anything because people don’t wear them correctly* for communicable disease prevention, but it still is widely regarded as a good type of preventive measure.
3. UV protection:
Some people use masks as a way to block their face from direct sunlight to prevent damage from UV rays. The mask and sunglass combination is a hit among both famous and regular people( and doubles as an easy way to go incognito mode I guess).
4. To protect from cold or dry skin:
When it is cold outside, a mask can help keep your face warm and comfortable while walking around. It can also help to prevent your skin from drying out and getting chapped from the wind. (I actually wear a mask long flights since it is so dry in the airplane cabin. It helps!)
…now here is one of the harder to explain reasons for so many masked people in Tokyo:
5. You just don’t want to show your face:
In recent years some people have developed a dependency on their masks and wear them for no particular functional or sanitary reason. Their mask act like a sort of security blanket, and is the de facto symbol of “leave me alone”. Fashion masks with different prints and colors are becoming hot sellers as some people describe the cold mask as the “underwear of their face”. They just don’t feel comfortable going outside without it.
I think the last reason is probably the hardest to grasp if you haven’t lived in Japan before. People here are really protective of their privacy and much more self-conscious of how they look than their Western counterparts. They also are concerned about running into people that they might know, so if they are not in the mood to interact with other people they will hide their face while outside.
This reason for wearing a mask that involves nothing related to hygiene or functionality is called datemasuku (伊達マスク, literally a mask just for appearance sake).
A survey performed in Shibuya found that 30% of mask wearers in that area were actually datemasuku. Here are a few reasons brought up to explain why they are wearing a mask**:
– Makes them feel more relaxed
– They hate their face
– It’s hard to tell where they are looking, and they can feel at ease
– They will probably not be recognised by people they know speaking.
– They don’t have to talk to anyone
– If they have to talk to someone, then they can feel more confident
– They will look more attractive with the mask on
– They can go out without makeup on.
– They can go out without shaving/have a 5 o’clock shadow
So new travellers to Tokyo, people are just being careful. There is nothing going around… other than some possible self-esteem issues. No need to be alarmed.