Upon arriving in Tokyo the first time, you may mistakenly assume you have arrived during some kind of epidemic. Many people (my kids and I estimated around 25%) of the population wear surgical masks when out in public. At first, I found it slightly confronting. Only because it’s difficult to ascertain someone’s mood by looking at only their eyes. This gave way to some confusion about why people wear them. This question played around in my mind for two weeks, after which time I made a wonderful Japanese friend, who speaks excellent English, who explained this mystery to us.
Like many aspects of Japanese etiquette, mask wearing is deeply rooted in consideration of others. If a person has a cold or flu, they will wear a mask while working or commuting to discourage the spread of disease. How considerate. Children also wear masks to school if they are ill.
Conversely, many people will wear a mask if there is a bad bug getting around, as a prophylactic measure. And, others still, if they are suffering from allergies (such as hey fever). It acts as a barrier when sneezing.
I find the mask wearing incredibly polite and thoughtful. It is a very visual reminder of the general selfless and “best for the group (nation)” mentality of the Japanese people.
Photo credit: David Woo on Flikr.