Life in Japan

8 Reasons Why Japanese Wear Surgical Masks

I’m sure you’ve seen them.
I’m sure you’ve heard about them.

I have to admit that I was quite shocked when I first came to Japan and saw so many people running around with surgical masks.
In Europe (as well as in most other regions of the world), you probably only wear these as a “normal” person when you’re terminally ill, in a state where catching a cold is fatal.

In Japan (and in some other Asian countries), however, people wear those masks for various reasons.
If you’ve ever wondered why Japanese wear surgical masks, then you should read on.

 

Reason #1: Being Sick

This is probably the most self-explanatory reason most people can up with on their own.
When you’re sick in Japan, it’s expected that you wear a mask in order to prevent your germs from spreading.
Not being considerate by not wearing a mask is considered to be rude!

If you enter a clinic or hospital in Japan and they’ve confirmed you have a fever, they will actually force you to wear a mask.
If you didn’t bring a mask, they usually sell it to you right there.

Especially when you’re coughing and sneezing a lot, you’re supposed to wear a mask in public.

There are also masks with aroma sheets inside which will help you breathe during nighttime.
This is used in order to cure your cold (faster) and you only wear them when sleeping.

Why Japanese Wear Surgical Masks

 

Reason #2: Not Wanting to Get Sick

While it is courtesy to wear a mask when you’re sick, a lot of people don’t.
Especially if you have to ride the packed trains in big cities like Tokyo, it’s extremely easy to catch a cold.
It’s so narrow, that people can’t even cover their mouth or nose, so masks can help to protect you from germs.

And mind you, Japanese trains are not the only crowded place!
Just go anywhere during Golden Week or cherry blossom season and you’ll have the same problem.

 

Reason #3: Too Lazy for Make-up

In Japan, it’s pretty much common sense that you’re always dressed up and put on make-up as a woman, even if you just go out to the supermarket around the corner.
But sometimes you just don’t feel like putting on make-up or are too lazy. Or maybe a big pimple is annoying you.
Then, the masks come in handy.

 

Reason #4: Fashion Item

Of course, it wouldn’t be Japan if there were only plain, boring white surgical masks.
In fact, there’s a huge variety in colors, patterns and even functions!
There are masks with nice aromatic flavors or masks where you can insert a wet sheet to cure your stuffed nose overnight.
Some masks have prints of your favorite anime character on it.

And thus, they’re also used as fashion accessory, matching your entire outfit of the day.

Why Japanese Wear Surgical Masks

 

Reason #5: Hay Fever

Hay fever is big in Japan. A lot of people are allergic to “sugi” (杉, Japanese cedar tree) or “hinoki” (ヒノキ, Japanese cypress) pollen.
Wearing a mask when you go outside during hay fever season, helps alleviate the symptoms.

 

Reason #6: Air Pollution

Japan itself doesn’t really struggle that much with air pollution, but sometimes the bad air from China is being blown over – up to the point where you can even SEE it.
Then, it’s also suggested to wear a mask.
There are even masks to protect from PM2.5 specifically.

 

Reason #7: Dry Air

I swear by Japanese surgical masks when I’m taking a long flight.
The air in airplanes is so insanely dry, but wearing a mask will keep your mucous membrane moisturized.
You might have seen a lot of Asian people wearing masks inside of airplanes. Now you finally know why. cute emoticon wink

Why Japanese Wear Surgical Masks

These are the ones that work best for me, sizewise. :)

 

Reason #8: It Stinks!

Sometimes it smells really bad, especially in packed trains or when you’re surrounded by smokers.
While a mask cannot reduce the smell completely, it certainly helps.

These are just a few reasons why Japanese people would wear a surgical mask.
What do you think about these masks?
Have you worn one before?

Why Japanese Wear Surgical Masks

When I first moved to Japan and had to wear my first surgical mask (I was sick at work), I hated that feeling.
It was weird and I had the feeling that I couldn’t breathe properly.
However, after almost a decade of living in Japan, I came to love them.
So much, in fact, that I had a hard time NOT wearing them when I was back in Germany.
I actually struggled entering a clinic without wearing a mask.
Reversed culture shock anyone? kaomoji ehehe

13 Comments

  • Hi Jasmine, i always thought the japanese wear surgical masks because of sickness. But it seems there are many more reasons which i didn’t know. When on vacation in japan i had a strange encounter because of these masks. I had hay fever in japan and my nose was running a lot. And one day an old man was standing in front of a pharmacy and he was pointing at me and shouting in japanese and holding a surgical mask in his hand. I think he thought that i was probably sick and should wear a mask. I have to confess i was kinda annoyed because you shouldn’t force someone to wear a mask. And i was also using my tissues a lot for my nose, i think a mask would be a hindrance there. So yeah, other than that it’s also strange to see people wearing those masks if you are not used to it in your home country.

    • Wow, Iris, I’m so sorry to hear about your bad experience.
      It’s true that they kind of force you to wear a mask in a clinic or hospital if you have a fever.
      And it’s also quite common in kindergarten or school, although I wouldn’t say they’re “forcing” you, but strongly suggesting to wear a mask.

      It’s hard to tell what the guy wanted to tell you.
      But you certainly would have done yourself a favor by wearing a mask during hay fever season. It really helps. ;)

      Do you know what you’re allergic to?
      The most common pollen for hay fever in Japan come from “sugi” (Japanese cedar) and “hinoki” (Japanese cypress).

      • I usually use Cetirizin as medicine and it works fine for me. The only downside for me ist that Cetirizin makes me sleepy. :D Here in Germany I’m allergic to birch trees and grass pollen. I don’t know which kind of pollen caused my hay fever in japan. Could also be grass pollen.

        • A lot of the meds against hay fever in Japan also make you sleepy. ;)
          Though, there are some that won’t.

          Difficult to tell. Unless you get your blood checked in Japan, you probably will never find out, but as a visitor it doesn’t really matter.
          As long as your meds work in Japan as well, all is good. ^_^

  • Thank you for these insights. During my first visit initially it was a bit strange to me as well (I was there during cherry blossom season, which is also pollen season), but then I heard and read some explanations. Based on those, I was aware of 1, 2 and 5, but especially the “avoid having to apply make-up” surprised me – it just shows that I’m a man I suppose, even in Japan shaving is usually enough for us.
    Wearing the masks to alleviate hayfever is actually a very sensible thing to do I think, and I have started the habit of wearing them here in Germany e.g. when I ride my bicycle during the hazel pollen season (which is an irritant for me). Why not copy good things? Recently I saw an interview on German TV where a “hay fever victim” complained how much she suffered while walking her dog under those very trees she was allergic against. I thought to myself “why do you expose yourself more than necessary? Just wear a mask!” I also have pills, but if I can reduce the dosage by using this simple physical means, it is certainly better.

    • I’ve worn a mask here in Germany a few times, but it always felt strange. People certainly stare at you.
      To my surprise I saw someone at the supermarket wearing a mask yesterday. That’s so rare!
      Of course, he also got a lot of stares. ;)

      Considering how much people are against the burka here, I suppose they wouldn’t want that people hide their faces behind masks, either. ;)

  • Hi Jasmine, I’m an avid fan of your postings but this is the first time i’m leaving a comment…

    Some years ago, I remembered having a flu during my trip but unfortunately, I didn’t use a surgical mask to cover up as it totally didn’t occur to me that I should have done so (well, people in my country only started using surgical masks due to the haze pollution some years ago). Come to think of it, I should have put on a mask as this is actually a good habit (especially since I’ve been more exposed to their culture after many trips back to Japan after that). In fact, during my last trip which was a few weeks back, it was still snowing and cold and I bought a lot of surgical masks to cover up my face every day so that the cold wind would not hit my face and my lips would not crack due to the coldness. And amazingly, it actually works! The bottom half of my face also felt warmer with the mask on. So I totally understand the locals for using surgical masks for every possible reasons.

    The only thing that I don’t understand, till now, is why isn’t anyone wearing sunglasses even though the sun was so glaring? Throughout my whole trip, I think apart from myself, I only saw a handful of people in sunglasses and most of them are clearly not Japanese…

    Anyway, thanks for your delightful posts! They have been great references for my own trips!

    • Hi Jolene,

      I’m so glad you finally chose to comment to share your experience! ^___^

      Oh yes! The masks were my life saver when I was in Hokkaido for the snow festival in Sapporo. At night it was as cold as -20°C. It definitely helped me to breathe as the air would have been too cold otherwise.

      I’m surprised about the sunglasses, though.
      In my experience Japanese people do wear sunglasses, but maybe a lot of them forget to use them in the winter time? Not sure. ^^

  • Slight variation on the make-up reason. I worked in Japan for two years, and would often see coworkers coming in with masks on. Usually for a cold, I assumed. One day an older male colleague had a mask one and I asked if he was sick. He sheepishly said “no.” And when I inquired about the mask he slowly lowered it to show a nasty shaving nick on his upper lip. The mask in this case is a more complete solution than the old-fashioned bit of toilet paper stuck to the face!

  • I was confused at first because I’m a huge anime fan. So whenever I watched a sports anime show and I saw them wearing mask I was like “they aren’t sick so why are they wearing them?” And now I completely understand. I’ve always got weird looks when I wear them on planes. It’s cramped and there’s nowhere to escape the germs circulating from people who’ve been who knows where. I am a complete germaphobe (odd for someone who lives in New York and takes the subway. Lol) and I’ve always wanted to find a way to keep the germs away. I’ve read articles on it, but not any as in depth as this one. Now I wear them almost all the time and no one looks twice (there are much odder things in NYC than a girl wearing a surgical mask). If you live in a heavily populated and polluted area and aren’t afraid of how other people view you, I definitely recommend using them. Depending on what color or pattern you wear, it can even become a (weird) fashion statement! So thank you for shedding light on this subject!

    • Mia, I’m not sure how well they really work in terms of keeping germs away. I’ve read biased opinions online.
      But often it’s all in your heand anyway and if masks help you to feel better, then it already does the job perfectly. :)

  • I use these daily during school hours.
    Teachers have come too accept that I have too wear them not too have panic attacks during class.
    This week recently I have had to double mask as I have too use dustmasks ( They have a filter) But Im still sketchy.
    Im terrified of getting sick and I keep trying to remind myself things are not contagious after 5 days. Fingers crossed that I can avoid getting sick for yet another week?

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