Need a Face Mask?

I’m sick. I don’t know about you, but it’s been a bad winter for me and illness.

As I sit on my couch coughing, I’m reminded of the face masks in Japan. It is very common to see people wearing masks over their noses and mouths. The students in the schools did not seem to think it was a big deal.

From an American perspective, I thought it was strange. I’m not used to seeing face masks, except sometimes on cafeteria workers.


I wondered why people wore these masks. At first, I thought I should stay far away from these people, because they might have some kind of rare contagious disease.

MasksonPublicTransitThen, I remembered how densely populated Japan is, and I thought that masks might make sense in a place that is so crowded.

In the end, I decided to ask some of my Japanese friends — why do Japanese people wear masks? They told me that people in Japan wear masks for three main reasons:

1) If they are sick, to avoid infecting others

2) If they want to avoid getting sick (for instance, right before a big exam)

3) If they have bad allergies, and want to keep pollen and other allergens out of their system


Student artwork hanging at one of the schools we visited


I asked if people felt ashamed to wear a mask. I think I’d be embarrassed to show up to school next week with one. My Japanese friends told me that it wasn’t considered weird at all. In fact, it would be considered rude to show up at school or work sick, without a mask. Japanese culture is very focused on care for the collective good, so wearing face masks is totally normalized there.

Another mask appearing in student artwork

Another mask appearing in student artwork

Would I be healthy today if Americans wore face masks like the Japanese? I don’t know, but right about now, I wish I could visit this nurse’s office at Akan Junior High School in Kushiro.

What do you think? Japanese friends — Please comment below and tell us what you think about face masks. American friends or those in other countries — Please comment below and tell us if you’d ever wear a face mask. What can we learn from each other’s cultures?

Categories: Japan

4 replies »

  1. Hi Sara, I so totally see the benefit of them. Like you I have this “cough-thing” and have been parked on the couch for the past couple of days. Unlike the person that infected me, I chose to stay home so as not to return the favor. I think it is possible that in the changing social climate, we might see more of this? Working with the military and with folks that duty oconus alot, shaking hands is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

  2. I had to see an eye doctor recently, and I had a cold. I thought about changing the appointment, but that would have been very inconvenient. In the end, I wore a face mask during my appointment, since the doctor would be so close to my face. The office had a bunch in boxes on the counter. The doctor thanked me for being considerate, and said he wished more people would do that. It made me think about people in offices at work, or going to school, where you don’t want to miss a day for an illness that’s not debilitating, but you might pass that bug on to someone who is immunocompromised or the bug may be worse than you first thought. I’m thinking, maybe face-masks should stop being embarrassing and start being the right thing to do.

  3. I think wearing a mask (AND good hand washing) should be the norm. Not only because of viruses but because air quality in most cities is something to rethink, especially since R&D in this area is lacking.

    ” lower respiratory infections and chronic obstructive lung disease have remained the top major killers during the past decade”…2012, WHO.

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