Long before the first wave of Covid-19 hit the world, Japanese people were comfortable with wearing face masks for medical reasons and to conform with social norms. Wearing a mask in public is a normal habit that has been practiced for over a century and appears to have its roots in religious festivals.
While citizens of other countries have railed against face masks as ineffective or an infringement of their civil liberties, all Japanese citizens have covered up with no questioning.
According to epidemiologists, wearing a mask has contributed to Japan’s relatively low infection and death rate from Covid-19. The latest data reported by Japanese health authorities show 93,607 confirmed cases and 1,676 fatalities in a country of over 126 million people. In comparison, the United States has reported 8.2 million cases and more than 220,000 deaths among its population of 328 million.
Wearing a mask is only one factor that has affected Japan’s infection rate. The Japanese culture of cleanliness plays also a crucial role. This includes washing hands frequently, and people bow in formal situations instead of shaking hands and do not kiss cheeks to greet people.
Face masks: an ancient habit
In 1868, at the end of the Meiji Period, Japanese people were already represented in works of art with their mouths covered.
In the last decades of the 1800s, people started to develop more concerns about infections; this led more and more people to purchase cloth masks to protect themselves. But the wearing of masks increased in 1918, when Japan was hit by the Spanish flu pandemic, which caused 50 million fatalities globally. Some academics estimated that between 257,000 and 481,000 Japanese died from the Spanish flu. However, a study by US academics suggested the actual figure may be up to 2.02 million deaths.
Since then, the habit of wearing face masks has remained, in particular during the winter flu season and the spring months to mitigate pollen allergies.
According to Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor of infection control at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, face masks are now part of the Japanese culture. People use face masks not just to protect themselves from other people, but mainly to protect people around them, especially if they had a cold or another illness.
Makoto Watanabe, a professor of communications at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, points out that there is also a high degree of social pressure in play. He explains that Japanese people know that they should be considerate towards others, thus they wear a mask to show others that they follow the rules.