Masks in Japan Are Everyday Items

    Many people in Japan wear masks on a daily basis when influenza spreads in the winter, or when there is a lot of pollen from Japanese cedars and Japanese cypresses in the air. Ever since the novel coronavirus began to spread, more and more people outside of Japan wear masks in public places. However, many people abroad may find it curious to know that Japanese people have had a culture of wearing masks on a daily basis even before the novel coronavirus spread. Why do many Japanese people wear masks without worrying about how they look to other people? This article looks at the background behind this practice.

The Reasons Why Masks Took Root in Japan

    More and more people wear masks now in Japan and it is common to see others with masks on. However, masks have not been popular among people in Japan for so long. Masks started to be used in Japan in the 1870s, about 150 years ago. At the time, people working at coal mines and factories wore the masks to protect themselves from dust. It is said that black masks were the most popular as dirt does not stand out with this color.

Black masks that were on sale about 150 years ago. They look like they would be fine as fashionable masks even in the present day.

    Incidentally, it is said that the oldest masks in Japan were used by miners in Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine, a location that is registered as a World Heritage Site. Known as Fukumen (literally, “lucky masks”), these masks were made by applying persimmon tannin (a liquid produced by fermenting persimmon juice) to several sheets of silk cloth, and then placing the flesh of Japanese plums in between the silk sheets. These Fukumen were essential items for people working at Iwami Ginzan.

    These masks demonstrate typically Japanese characteristics. Firstly, they are made using plants that can be found in nature. Secondly, the name Fukumen is actually a play on words: the regular word for mask in Japanese is also pronounced Fukumen but it is written with Kanji characters that mean “masks for covering.” The name for the masks worn by these miners takes the character Fuku (“covering”) and replaces it with another character with the same pronunciation Fuku but with the meaning “lucky.” This play on words shows the tendency of Japanese people to be conscious about words and phrases that have good luck.

    Demand for masks increased rapidly in Japan following the spread of influenza in the country starting in 1918. Apparently, informative posters were put up in the streets to encourage people to wear masks at that time. Later, influenza spread again in 1934, and masks grew hugely popular in Japan as a means to prevent infection. From then on, masks became more and more widespread in Japan each time influenza spread. In this way, the practice of wearing a mask if one has a cold or is unwell gradually took root among Japanese people.

    Since ancient times, Japan is home to a culture of being considerate of other people around oneself and placing importance on cooperation. These defining characteristics of the Japanese people reinforced their awareness so as to avoid causing trouble to others around them, and this may have made it easier for masks to come into extensive use.

An informative poster about wearing masks that was put on display during the spread of influenza. This poster shows people wearing masks with a black color.
Sanitary Affairs Bureau, Home Ministry, Influenza, March 1922
Housed in the Library of the National Institute of Public Health

Masks Have Become Part of People’s Lives as Everyday Items

    In general, masks are often used for preventing epidemics. In Japan, people wear masks in many cases to avoid passing on germs to other people if they catch a cold or an infectious disease. On the other hand, a large number of people in Japan put on masks in public places even if they are not feeling unwell. One reason for this is hay fever, a condition present in about 30% of Japanese people.
    Hay fever refers to the sneezing, runny nose, and other symptoms that people feel due to an allergic reaction that happens when pollen enters the body from Japanese cedars, Japanese cypresses, or other trees. There is a large amount of pollen in the air during the spring and fall in particular, and many Japanese people suffer symptoms such as sneezing and runny nose during these seasons. Wearing a mask helps to ease these symptoms, so Japanese people suffering from hay fever have a custom to wear masks at school or work as well as when going outside.

People with hay fever have an allergic reaction when they breathe in pollen, resulting in sneezing, runny nose, and other symptoms. Wearing a mask helps to prevent this.

Masks Are Also Popular as Fashion Items

    With the spread of the novel coronavirus, it is now a common part of daily life in Japan to wear a mask regardless of the season. There is now an active trend for using masks as a stylish fashion item, rather than just a healthcare product.

    There are many kinds of masks available. For example, there are masks made with Sekishu Washi, a type of traditional Japanese paper, or Washi. You can also find Nishijin Ori masks made with a fabric called Nishijin Ori—a long-established handicraft from Kyoto well known for its many shrines and temples as well as for being a highly historical city. You can also find Oshima Tsumugi masks made with a fabric called Oshima Tsumugi—a traditional handicraft originating from Amami Oshima a remote island at the south of the Japanese archipelago.

    These masks are created as a fusion of traditional techniques that have been handed down since antiquity in Japan together with a uniquely modern sense for fashion. As a result, the masks are beautiful to look at and feature intricate constructions while also offering suitable functionality.

A mask using Nishijin Ori, a fabric originating from Kyoto as a traditional handicraft

A mask using Oshima Tsumugi, a fabric originating from Amami Oshima as a traditional handicraft

    The historic weight of traditional handicrafts can make it sometimes difficult to incorporate them into daily life. However, Japanese artisans living in the modern day are constantly looking for new ideas while responding to the day-to-day changes in society. In this way, the artisans make continuous efforts to take the long history produced from traditional handicrafts and to preserve this history for future generations.

Comfortable Masks Have Also Appeared, Using Cutting-Edge Technologies

    In contrast to the masks described above that feature traditional techniques, we can see the appearance of masks for a new era made with cutting-edge technologies and ideas.

    A manufacturer of swimming equipment developed a mask that can stay cool for an extended period if you just soak it in water and shake it off. The fabric of this mask uses materials from swimwear as well as unique materials that help you feel cooler.

The FOOTMARK COOLISH SUMMER MASK SP developed by Footmark Corporation. This mask uses a unique type of fabric that absorbs heat to evaporate water soaked into it, achieving an effect that makes it feel cool.

    There are many other kinds of masks as well, such as masks featuring fabric with xylitol blended into it to give a cold, refreshing feeling. Xylitol is also used in gum, toothpaste, and other products.

    While many Japanese people use these kinds of premade masks, a large number of people also enjoy making their own original masks. You can attain comfort and bring a little spice to your daily life by making a mask using cloth in a pattern that you like and a size that fits you perfectly.

With handmade masks, you can use cloth with your favorite patterns, and you can produce any design you like with them. For this reason, people enjoy handmade masks as fashion items that let them express themselves.

    As we have seen in this article, masks are an everyday item in Japan, and they are also gaining popularity as fashion items that offer both functionality and good design. We are likely to see more masks being developed in the future with many different kinds of creative ideas.