Until recently, masks were primarily worn by people who had already come down with an illness. If you were feeling under the weather but couldn’t take the day off, common courtesy dictated that you cover your mouth and nose with a mask, so as not to breathe your germs all over you class or office mates or fellow commuters.
Things started changing in 2003, though, when medical supply maker Unicharm released a new type of mask specifically designed for hay fever sufferers. Until that point, most masks had been made of cotton, with an inner pouch into which gauze was placed. After taking off the mask users threw out the gauze, washed the cotton mask for reuse, and restuffed the pocket.
The introduction of these cheap, easier-to-use masks also made it more practical to wear one in order to prevent getting sick in the first place. Commuting in Japan often means spending an hour or more pressed up against your fellow passengers on a train or bus, and not everyone has the good manners to put down their smartphone and cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze.
Sales figures show that use of masks has more than tripled over the last decade, with particularly large spikes caused by influenza outbreak fears in 2009 and worries over micro particulate matter following the earthquake and nuclear accident of 2011. Estimates for fiscal year 2013 value Japan’s mask market at 23.9 billion yen.
But as masks provoke less and less surprise, some people are using them for purposes that have nothing to do with physical health. One 46-year-old mother, who herself wears a mask every day in the winter to prevent getting sick, says her high-school-age daughter wears one for a completely different reason. “She puts on a mask and sticks headphones in her ears so that people won’t bother her. It makes it harder for them to start talking to her.”
But the recent surge in masks’ popularity isn’t entirely the result of a desire to give people the cold shoulder. On the contrary, an increasing number of people are using masks because of their desire for warmth. Japan gets pretty chilly during the winter. Thankfully, the layered look is definitely in, and as the temperature drops, you can bundle up with tights, undershirts, sweaters, parkas, gloves, scarves, and caps. One thing that’s hard to do, though, is keep your face warm.
Granted, you could always pick up a ski mask at the sporting goods shop, but effectiveness aside, you’re going to get some strange looks wearing one anywhere other than on the slopes. But since Japanese society has already gotten used to people wearing surgical masks outside of the hospital, you can safely put one on to keep your nose and cheeks warm without attracting any attention.
Even women whose livelihood doesn’t depend on looking their best at all times are finding masks to be a handy for those times when they need to dash out to run errands and don’t feel like spending a half-hour putting on blush and lipstick first.
Some people even see masks as a fashionable accessory. An online search for masuku bijin or “beautiful masked girl” will bring up hundreds of results, and an increasing number of companies are offering masks with floral, polka dot, and even houndstooth patterns, not to mention jet-black ninja-style masks for guys.
There’s even a mask whose seller claims it’ll help you lose weight. Cosmetics maker T-Garden has jumped into the mask arena with its Flavor Mask. Not only does it feature a pretty-in-pink design, each disposable mask comes infused with the scent of raspberry, which T-Garden says will boost your metabolism.
We’re not entirely convinced about the scientific soundness of their promise, and from an armchair psychology viewpoint, it seems like a food-based fragrance is going to do more to ramp up your appetite than your metabolism. Still, like any mask it should help prevent you from passing a cold around, keep your face a little warmer, cut off unwanted social interaction, and preclude the need to wear extensive makeup, none of which is necessarily diminished by its calorie-burning quackery.