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Why Japanese People Wear Masks

If you go to Japan, you’ll notice that they do a lot of things differently. Even though they seem out of place to us, they are actually pretty normal there, and Japanese people probably don’t even know we think it’s weird.
One thing that threw me off when I first got there was how many people were wearing masks. Like, the surgical kind. In America, I had only seen doctors wear them for surgery. But in Japan, people were wearing them everywhere.
So I started asking people why they wore masks. When you’re a foreigner, you can ask a lot of dumb questions and nobody really cares. Honestly, no one really seemed to mind me asking, so you could probably ask too. But if you’re wondering, here’s a few of the main reasons Japanese people wear surgical masks.

1. They’re sick.

This is probably the most common reason I saw people wearing masks. It’s polite in Japan to wear a mask when you are sick. They don’t really think it will stop the germs from spreading (because it probably won’t), but it’s a way to tell people to be careful around them.
Japanese people really don’t hide the fact they are sick. In fact, instead of asking “How are you?” the general phrase is “Are you healthy?” To which it is perfectly acceptable to reply, “I’m sick.” Wearing masks is kind of like a public service when you’re sick, so other people can be careful and not catch whatever you have.
Sometimes when you go into hospitals, they’ll ask you to put a mask on too. They do offer a bit of protection, so that could be why. I never really asked. I just did what they told me to. Japanese hospitals intimidate me.
People will also wear masks if they have seasonal allergies. This actually does help a bit, so it’s more for the wearer than the people around them. A funny story, though: one time a Japanese woman told me that pollen only existed in Japan. Therefore only Japanese people would have pollen allergies. I guess that means I must be a little Japanese, because spring is the worst.

2.They aren’t wearing makeup.

A surprisingly silly reason, yes. But a valid reason, I think.
I was at a train station once when I started chatting with some college girls. They were both wearing masks, and it was winter. So I asked if they had a cold. Both of them started laughing. Apparently, they just didn’t want to put on makeup, so instead they put masks on. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just do that here?
Japanese people will also wear masks if they have something on their face they are embarrassed of, like acne. I had a friend who got a new moisturizer. Unfortunately, she had a bad reaction to it, and she broke out all over the side of her face. Her easy fix was to just wear a mask until it went away. Whenever people asked her if she was sick or something, she just told them about the breakout.
This one isn’t limited to girls. Even guys will wear masks if they want to hide something on their face.

3. They’re cold.

I didn’t really get this reason until I tried it. When I lived in Japan, I biked everywhere. And Japan has really cold, really humid winters. If you’ve never lived through a humid winter, count yourself lucky.
Anyways, I was talking to my neighbor one day about how cold my face would get while biking around, and she suggested I wear a mask. If you’ve ever worn a mask for a long time, you probably know that your face can literally sweat from everywhere. Wearing a mask in the summer can be unbearable. But during the winter, it’s like heaven.
I started wearing a mask, and it made a huge difference. I asked around a bit, and found out a lot of people did it. It made me really sad when I came back to America and couldn’t do that anymore. Seriously, if you wear a mask here, people think you are dying of some terrible disease. My solution here is to just wrap a scarf around my face, but it’s not nearly as convenient.

4. They’re cleaning.

This is the reason most Americans expect. Besides doctor’s, the only other people I’d seen wear masks were doing some heavy duty cleaning, or something that involved harsh chemicals. We sometimes wear masks to avoid breathing in dust, and Japanese people do the same.
The only difference is that masks are so much easier to find in Japan. Seriously, you can get them at the dollar store.
5. They want to look cool. Or ignore you.
Masks in Japan are so common, they have almost become like an accessory. You can get super cute masks with animal faces or flowers on them. It’s not uncommon for people to wear them just because they want to. Besides the usually white and blue surgical masks, you can find all sort of reusable masks that definitely seem like they are more for fashion than function.
Sometimes people will wear them so people don’t talk to them. Not being able to see someone’s mouth when you’re talking to them is surprisingly off-putting. It kind of puts a barrier between you, and it’s pretty effective if they are avoiding conversation. Besides, most people will assume they’re sick and keep their distance anyways.
If they don’t want people to recognize them, a mask is a good way to go too. A lot of famous people live in Tokyo. A lot of those people don’t want to be mobbed by fans everytime they go to the grocery store. Wearing a mask can help them protect their privacy.
So if you see a Japanese person wearing a mask (which you will), these may be some of the reasons for it. Wearing masks is super common in Japan, and it’s really not rude if you want to ask.
Masks have a lot of different uses. I personally loved wearing them during the winter, and really wish we wore them more in America. I think it’s great to be able to tell people you’re sick without even saying anything, and avoiding conversations can be pretty nice too. Japanese people really got this one right.
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