Japanese Surgical Mask Culture

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128 Responses to “Japanese Surgical Mask Culture”

  1. GuidoDavid says:

    Almost sixty comment and I cannot believe no one has made the obvious geek joke:
    Do those people from Mars that use the masks because they have no mouth, do they must scream?

    And I use a surgical mask pretty much every time I go to vote, since the alternatives stink.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “anybody wear surgical masks in your region out n about in public?”

    I once saw a couple wearing those masks, in Paris.
    They were Japanese tourists.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I wear the masks just for fun, if you draw kawaii little faces on them, they are adorable :]
    I wear them to school too, and not only do they look cute, they keep you from getting sick or getting others sick :]

  4. Shelby Davis says:

    Thank you, 58 Guidodavid. You saved me the trouble.

    When I first moved to Songtan (c. 40 miles from Seoul) from the mountains of Colorado, where everybody just tells germs to go stuff it, I was horrified. I was only six, and thought I was surrounded by lepers. Later I just figured out they were careful people.

    A few years later, when I moved to Seoul, the masks seemed a little less common, probably because there was a lower concentration of old people–it seemed like it was mostly an elderly-lady thing. But by that time, another health/comfort item had appeared–giant, tinted visors. You flipped them down over your face, and were completely obscured (people wore them even on overcast days). And in winter, when these (again, primarily older women) went walking down the street in tinted face shields and giant, silver, poofy down coats—like you, Danny Choo, I had my suspicious about a Martian invasion.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Unfortunately it is not part of American culture, even when a person needs a mask. My mother-in-law is currently fighting the local school board for the right to wear a mask for her medical condition.
    http://tinyurl.com/dfmhct

  6. Anonymous says:

    Look this is simple guys, all this nonsense you’ve been going on about (celebrities want to hide, yada, yada yada) is missing the point.

    Japanese culture regards the expulsion of bodily fluids as repulsive – on about the same level as we in the west regard s***ing in the street.

    In Japan you don’t blow your nose unless you really have to – you sniff and swallow instead (note this is something we regard as repulsive)

    If you really, really *must* blow your nose you use a tissue – not a cloth, that’s used to wipe your hands after going to the toilet – and you turn away and duck your head so no-one can see you.

    Now all of this gets to be a problem if you have a runny nose because people are going to be revolted by seeing liquids come out of your nostrils.

    So you get a mask which catches the mucous and means your co-workers are preserved from the stomach-churning experience of watching your bodlily excretions.

    Got it?

    It’s simple. Can we get over the “my, aren’t the Japanese weird” thing now?

  7. bugmaker says:

    The masks turn up here in Vancouver BC with regularity, population density and diversity being contributing factors. And some folks here have no mouths.

  8. subhan says:

    This was also pretty common in S. Korea. One additional reason for wearing masks you left out is to filter out the yellow dust during storms. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_dust
    There were times when visibility was down to well less than 1/2 mile for several days at a time due to the dust in the air. Nasty!

  9. Anonymous says:

    I live in Garden Grove Ca. near a large Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians and masks are common,mostly among older people.

  10. MrGone1980 says:

    Funny you guys mentioned this, as I saw a mother and her child today, and the child was rocking the mask.

    This was at the Columbus Circle train station in NY.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yeah. I wore a mask when I caught the flu, was well enough to go to schoo, but was still contagious and was still metaphorically coughing up pieces of my lung.

      I live in New york City, by the way. I’d really appreciate it if people here wore face masks to at least indicate that they were sick. It’s the worst to sit down next to someone only to find out that that person’s going to sneeze on you.

  11. loreshdw says:

    Unfortunately is it not part of American culture, even for those that need to wear a mask. My MIL is currently fighting her school district for the right to wear a filtration mask.

    http://www.suburbanchicagonews.com/heraldnews/news/1428826,4_1_JO13_THEMASK_S1.article

  12. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, Taiwan is another country that does the mask thing. You may have seen it in news footages during the SARS outbreak, but even well before that, Taiwanese wore surgical masks for the reasons listed in the article above.

  13. sandyfeet says:

    Last month while on my way to a 3-week working vacation in Australia, the guy behind me on my Houston-LA flight was trying to cough up a lung. In fact, the whole flight sounded like a malaria ward. I spent three stressful hours with a bev-nap pressed to my mouth/nose to no avail. Within 3 days of landing in Melbourne I was sick with a cold, leading to a severe asthma attack which nearly landed me in the hospital. So much for the vacation part of my trip…

    I wish more sick people would use these masks. If nothing else, it looks like you are at least _trying not to infect your fellow citizens.

  14. Falcon_Seven says:

    Other than health reasons -which are seasonal- the main reason Japanese wear surgical masks in public is to hide their facial expressions from others.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I like this guest blogger. He cracks me up :)

  16. Anonymous says:

    I already knew some of the basic reasons for wearing a mask.
    When the H1N1 (Swine Flu) was showing up at my school I wanted to wear one but it was forbidden.

    So I caught it (weak immune system) and really wanted to wear one to prevent it spreading. Alas I stayed home from school for a week.
    Stupid unsanitary anti-democratic American schools…

  17. artbot says:

    Are you kidding? In America, we sneeze a giant blast of cootie-infected snot right into the air con intake or community food bag whenever we can and we likes it!

    At least that what it seems like. People here are disgusting.

    • Anonymous says:

      ha. i kind of agree. i went to Japan last month, and at first i was befuddled by the masks and thought it was silly. but then i came back to NY, where the air is probably just as bad as Tokyo, but the subways and sidewalks are definitely dirtier, and there is litter and garbage everywhere. i started wearing the mask in my dusty apartment while i clean up and it keeps me from sneezing so much (i’m the only one who cleans in my apartment so there was build-up on my return). i don’t think i’ll wear the mask because of the inconvenience and because it’s abnormal in this country, but i might get the special mask for biking because you really get a mouth full of muffler smog sometimes and it’s really disconcerting, and the bike mask just looks like regular bike protective gear.

  18. Anonymous says:

    OH yeah, most definitely do they pop up here and there in New York city, mostly with people of Asian origin. I kind of wish it would become the norm, especially in schools and offices!

  19. minktea says:

    Toronto has a number of people who rock the surgical masks. They are typically Chinese and Korean.

    During and shortly after SARS, it often looked like 1 out of 3 people in the city were sporting the masks too.

    Also I’ve noticed they’re popular during spring and summer. I’m not sure what the correlation is though.

  20. Razzabeth says:

    When I’m sick, I will wear a scarf to cover my nose and mouth. I really really hate when sick people cough or breath on me. I think it’s the rudest, most nastiest, unthinking thing I just want to punch them right in their runny little noses.

  21. Anonymous says:

    The mask is part of the Japanese mania for cleanliness and health. And they are paying dearly for it.

    An immune system is like a muscle you have to use it to keep it working properly. Those little daily challenges to your immune system keep you safe from bigger nastier stuff like cancer. One Japanese researcher has been following this trend and testing the population. Their immune systems are much weaker then people who do not use masks and they are starting to get some nasty diseases because of it.

    The mask may keep you from a cold or two, but I would rather have the cold then cancer.

  22. lesliedorian says:

    @aninsomniac
    Also, not sure if it’s true, but in manga, I’ve seen many “gang”/yankee sort of people wearing these masks. Maybe it’s also a fashion statement with the rowdy sort, or a way to cover their face, avoiding witnesses, etc.

    Yup – bozokoku gangsters often wear masks before riding en masse for these reasons:

    1) hides their identity from police and witnesses
    2) looks scarier and intimidating
    3) the inside can be coated/soaked in paint thinner as a hands-free way to get high while riding.

  23. Anonymous says:

    i do it all the time, not just when im sick though. i have some i wear during days of silence to support certain things.

  24. halkun says:

    The masks also provide a layer of anonymity to others. It allows famous people to walk the streets (Usually in a hat and dark glasses) without fear of getting mobbed by fans.

  25. pepsi_max2k says:

    wow, i actually just walked past a guy wearing one today in york, england. i think he was japanese, and figured so many people did it over there he figured it was normal.

  26. BoydJones says:

    Lots and lots of people in Taiwan (the Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945) wear surgical masks when they are ill!

  27. Arrakiv says:

    Oh yeah. I remember first seeing this when I went to Japan and being pretty confused initially. It clicked after a while though.

  28. travis_bassist says:

    I’d feel a little self-conscious wearing a mask all the time. Although I wish folks here in the states would do that if they have a cold. I think that would be considerate. HINT HINT!

    On the other note – I’d be interested in those nose-filters for when I’m flying. Anyone know if they are effective? Where to buy them?

    Thanks!

  29. Anonymous says:

    I would completely wear a mask (I have allergies and I really don’t like other peoples germs), but I know people would look at me like I was an alien. I live in Washington State.

  30. thickdot says:

    Just Prince’s keyboardist.

  31. Shaddack says:

    Could be a nice way to deal with the omnipresent surveillance cameras. Face masks could be a nice patch for the culture to partially roll back the privacy loss. (Requires enough people to use them to not look unusual.)

  32. Rick Fletcher says:

    I’ve seen the occasional public mask-wearer wandering around San Francisco. Mostly on Muni (public transit).

  33. fredrik sarnblad says:

    I would be really curious to know if there is any research on whether the practice of wearing surgical masks have an effect on health in society as a whole. Does is in fact limit the spread of flu epidemics in Japan relative to other countries? Hard to measure of course, but it’s not totally unlikely, is it?

  34. mkill says:

    In Germany, it’s forbidden by law to wear a mask when on a political demonstration:
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vermummungsverbot (sorry, no English translation yet)

    Maybe one day we’ll see the first Japanese tourist arrested by German police when he accidentally walked around the wrong corner…

  35. Jardine says:

    Is it part of the Japanese work ethic to go to work even though they’re sick? Yeah, thanks for bringing that virus to work so you can infect all of your co-workers. Oh, you’re wearing a mask so you won’t infect us? Yeah, pretty sure a thin layer of cloth isn’t going to stop it.

  36. thehamsterman says:

    Here at the University of Iowa you will see the occasional person wearing a face mask. We do have a very large Asian student population though…

    Plus this entire region was flooded last year, everyone was wearing masks back then, due to the air quality.

  37. Anonymous says:

    My mom wore a surgical mask in public on occasion. She was in the advanced stages of lung cancer and strong smells made her sick to her stomach.

    So, to reduce the strength of the smells that hit her, she would sometimes choose to wear a mask.

  38. tyger11 says:

    I’d prefer the cool kind of noseplugs worn by the main baddie in ‘Ultraviolet.’

  39. lectroid says:

    In or around Palo Alto, near Stanford Hospital, you can see what I can only presume to be a much larger than usual proportion of people with masks. This makes perfect sense, as Stanford is one of the premiere transplant hospitals in the states. A lot of folks down there for treatment are immuno-compromised, so a mask seems like a perfectly sensible precaution. Occasionally, you’ll even see someone out in public with what looks like full-on filtration/respirator gear.

    However, most of the people I’ve seen out in public with masks are ALSO wearing latex gloves, plastic bags over their shoes, and have their hats lined with tinfoil. I would speculate that the reason most North Americans wear masks is fear of contraction of others’ germs, rather than fear of spreading their own.

    A rather interesting signifier of the difference in culture.

  40. treetopbirdy says:

    I have seen the occasional person wearing a surgical mask. I live in New York City – and actually, now that I think of it, every person I’ve ever seen wearing one was Asian. Tho I have to say I’ve considered it. Getting a couple of horrendous upper resp infections a year makes a person a little desperate. I’ve wondered if it would help.

  41. FactWino says:

    As a lung transplant recipient, my transplanted organs are exposed directly to the environment and whatever anyone around me may be infected with. That, on top of immune suppression to prevent rejection leads me to wear masks in public from time to time, and always on airplanes. I think I feel like I’m under more scrutiny than I actually am, but I do get some looks. I’d love for our culture to adopt the I’ll-wear-a-mask-to-protect-those-around-me mentality. In cities with large transplant centers, especially those that do lungs, people might see more masks.

  42. kaelsleeps says:

    In Oregon, at the Portland State University health clinic (SHAC), there’re signs encouraging folks with colds to wear masks.

  43. Michelle says:

    I, too, could use some of those nose stoppers, but they’re not on eBay and Googling brings up nothing related.

  44. The Lizardman says:

    Wear a mask into a bank (or maybe the airport) in the US and your cold worries will likely cease to be your main health risk priority

  45. Anonymous says:

    i am from hk, and since i was little, i somehow knew why japanese did that, but it was never a norm in hk until SARS hit.. its more common to see sick people use surgical masks which is good..

    i hate it when my one of my coworkers often report to work when she is obviously sick with her voice and coughing… i mean… you should have the common sense to keep germs to yourself or at home..

  46. Noelegy says:

    I’ve strongly considered wearing one of these to work. Not only is my boss heater-happy and cranks up the heater in the entire building to make it warm in her office (and I live in Texas, where we get one day of snow a year, it’s gone by noon, and we really just don’t get cold weather by anyone’s standards), but this heater apparently has never had its ducts cleaned, and blows dust all over everything in profuse quantities. You can always tell when the heater has switched on, because it sets off a fusillade of sneezes throughout the cubicle farm.

  47. Anonymous says:

    I remember the first place I saw this years ago…
    Disney World and it freaked me out then (still does now).

  48. Anonymous says:

    We had a female Japanese foreign exchange student living with us in about 1988. She would tie a kerchief over her nose and mouth whenever it was her turn to dust and vacuum, presumably to prevent inhaling the dust. Not a bad idea.

  49. TroofSeeker says:

    When Michael Jackson’s one-glove fashion didn’t catch on, he tried the surgical mask.
    No, wait, that was to catch his nose when it falls off.
    Me? I wear a cup when I go out in public. I get kicked in the groin a lot. Religious perecution, I guess. Heathen.

  50. Blondy says:

    I thought it was initially a response to SARS, allergies, and air polution and then morphed into a fashion statement.
    Did anyone else think it was a kind of fashion statement?

  51. Anonymous says:

    I was told by someone who lived in Japan years ago that the masks came into “fashion” post WWII, when everyone was so weak and TB was rampant. They protected somewhat against TB, but also against cold and pneumonia, which were so much worse in the debilitated population. Also, they discouraged spitting by sick people (spitting was and still is relatively common in Japan), which helped slow the spread of TB. They’ve hung on thru several generations now, and undoubtedly got a boost during the recent SARS and bird flu outbreaks.

  52. Zippy Gonzales says:

    Could also be a way to prevent lip readers snooping on conversations. Must be hell on their Deaf mates.

  53. tomrigid says:

    In Eugene, Oregon, it’s not uncommon to see people wearing surgical masks to filter the allergens, especially in the spring.

    From April to June it’s a hay fever holocaust up in there.

  54. Anonymous says:

    I work at Disneyland and I see it all the time

  55. dainel says:

    Hey, you people are silly. If you get sick with the flu, you *MUST* go to work in order to infect your colleagues. Only after you have successfully infected at least one other people, will you recover from your sickness. If you don’t go to work, you will only recover *AFTER* you have infected at least one of your family members.

    This is easily checked from simple observation. When you get sick, is it more likely for one of your family, colleague, friend to fall sick, after which you recover; or is it more likely for them to catch the disease *AFTER* you have recovered?

  56. Sindigo says:

    A girl I work with was wearing one right before Christmas as she has a cold. She’s white, as far as I can tell and I’m the UK. Not even a big, cosmopolitain city either.

    It would be more usual for someone here to take a day or two off with a cold than struggle into work wearing a mask. I think I’d rather be at home on the sofa wrapped in a warm blanket than pawing through reports through itchy, bleary eyes anyway.

  57. monkeygirl says:

    I’ve gotta say that the difference in responses between this post and the earlier “Our Food is Full of Crap” one is amusing.

  58. mercurytransit says:

    It may be very well intentioned but it doesn’t work. Viruses such as the common cold or flu are typically a tenth or so of a micrometer in size and so will fly straight through the holes in the cloth of these masks when they sneeze. They are, however, effective against bacteria which are much bigger and this is the reason medics wear them.

  59. joeposts says:

    “Is it part of the Japanese work ethic to go to work even though they’re sick?”

    I don’t think it’s exactly a Japanese thing, and not everybody can afford to stay home if the company doesn’t give workers ‘sick days’. I always work when I get sick. What’s the point of staying home in bed when I can’t enjoy it and I lose lots of money? Plus you can get away with a lot when you’re sick at work – “Can’t do it, I’m sick.” “Sorry I’m so miserable, jerkface coworker, but I’m sick…” etc.

    So I take it to work, then everyone else gets sick, and productivity suffers for a month. Mwhahahaha.

  60. peltamoto says:

    this is very common in most southeast asian countries i’ve visited. it definitely picked up in HK around SARS time but they did wear them before and have since. i often thought it may have to do with population density, but then i saw them even in very rural, sparsely populated areas.

    #14 yes it most definitely is part of japanese culture to go to work when one is sick. japanese people for the most part are not allowed to get sick, and if they do they must not show weakness in any way and must go on with their lives as if nothing is wrong … is very different than my pampered mid-western upbringing.

  61. Gotanda says:

    Three more reasons to wear masks from a uni instructor in Tokyo:

    1. Once in a while shy, unprepared, unresponsive, or just plain contrary students will wear them to class to hide behind.

    2. When the department admin staff buy a 100 count box and leave them on the front counter during flu season, you either pick one up or risk their wrath. Never risk the wrath of the admin staff–they can make your life sweet or hell.

    3. When the HVAC system in your new building pumps out way too much hot dry air, these keep a little humidity in your breathing system.

  62. allennoble says:

    They’ve being doing it forever in Japan, but in Hong Kong (where I live) I dont recall seeing a mask in public before SARS.

    During SARS though, 90% of the population was walking around in masks and a miasma of fear. It was surreal. Street hawkers went from pushing copy rolex watches and Gucci handbags to the surgical mask trade. After a short time it became fashionable to sport bright colours and/or patterns or you could shock your fellow commuters by sporting a *gasp* naked face.

    These days with SARS a memory but bird flu looming it’s quite common for sick people to ware a mask.

  63. mercurytransit says:

    Oh and I forgot also to say that when you catch a cold/flu it is most likely you got it by touching something that an infected person has recently touched, such as a hand rail or door knob etc. It’s much harder to catch a cold from a person sneezing. They did studies in which adults sat around a table with children who had colds. Nobody caught a cold simply by sitting there but then they made them play card games and only then did they become infected.

    This is why you shouldn’t shake hands with someone in the winter. That and wash your hands a lot and don’t touch your eyes, mouth or nose. I haven’t had a cold or flu in 8 years by doing this.

    Actually, I wonder if historically, that is why Japanese people bow rather than shake hands? It may have come about as a means of limiting the spread of disease.

  64. allen says:

    I have to agree with monkeygirl that the contrast between responses to this post and those to the recent food article are amusing. Also the free-range children one.

    Apparently there is something terrifying about being made of meat. Someday we’ll manage to convert ourselves into plastic androids who can live and work in clean rooms, and take bleach baths hourly.

  65. susanb says:

    When I was going through chemo and had almost no white blood cells I wore a surgical mask all the time when out in public. I think that I scared people who assumes that I was contagious with something nasty.

  66. rEDcELL says:

    I see them in Santa Fe sometimes.

  67. gnosis says:

    How timely, I just received this Valentine.

  68. Secret_Life_of_Plants says:

    What about the really cute anime-looking staring-video Japanese girl with crooked teeth?

  69. TheBlessedBlogger says:

    Actually yeah, I wear one sometimes because I have really severe allergies and a not so great immune system. I get some odd looks but I’d rather strangers look at me funny then get even more sick than I already am. Frankly, I wish more people would wear them. Went to a doc appointment the other day and the guy coughs into his hand and then moments later offers me the same hand to shake. Um, no?

    I’m really interested in the Bio-Pit nose plugs. Does anyone know more about them? For instance, is it an actual filter or just a ring of rubber? Can I buy them in the US? How well do they work?

  70. Atomische says:

    Just tonight, here in Brooklyn NYC, I passed a nail salon that was open late. All the employees — very likely Koreans, had masks. My first thought was they must have to inhale a lot of fumes doing nails all day, but after reading this I wonder if they’re just minimizing germs.

  71. Spikeles says:

    If i ever wear one, i want this one: http://tinyurl.com/akoa48

  72. Neko says:

    Adds 10% resistance to the Silence status.

  73. pinehead says:

    I live near Emory U. The only time I ever see masks in public is when a very ill person goes out for something. By “ill” I mean those with a compromised immune system; chemo patients and the like.

  74. Anonymous says:

    People wear surgical masks in China as well, although I think it is mainly to reduce the amount of pollution you inhale.

  75. Anonymous says:

    Strange that this was posted today…

    Melbourne and a lot of east Victoria (in Australia) is covered in smoke and ash from the bushfires. In some suburbs it’s difficult to breathe outside, and many people (including me) have been wearing dust masks.

  76. Anonymous says:

    I have an idea”” If your sick’ STAY-HOME ! How hard is that .

  77. zeroy says:

    I must say, it seems kind of rude and irresponsible when someone who’s job has them interacting with the public is hacking and sneezing. Or a co-worker. I feel that under these circumstances, taking a sick day is not for your health so much as the health of those around you. I’m not a germ freak and I don’t recoil in horror, but I think about it.

    On the other hand, it’s pretty much impossible to quarantine yourself from rhino-viruses, unless you’re going to be a recluse and/or an OCD hand washer. I mean you’d have to give up handling cash altogether.

    I like to think that exposure to a certain level of pathogens keeps the immune system on its toes. Which is just a smart-sounding way to quote my mother, “A little dirt never hurt anyone.

    So, I wash my hands occasionally and keep my fingers out of my eyes and nose.

  78. BlindKarma says:

    Americans are adverse to wearing them… even in the hospitals. I work with people that have Active TB and I get mad when I see them waiting in confined quarters, unmasked. Some of the clinics I work at have negative pressure rooms but some don’t. I’m in radiology and they have to get xrayed, they’ll have the mask around their neck instead and their child with them.

    The only place I see them worn are in food services when someone maybe sick but can’t lose the work or if a guy doesn’t want to cut his facial hair.

  79. Eric Hart says:

    I’ve seen a few people in NYC wearing these, too. I even remember the day I saw a non-Asian person wearing one. Since they’re more common in the winter months, I’ve always assumed they were to keep the cold air out; sort of like a scarf that’s easier to breathe through and always stays in place.

  80. ab5tract says:

    @21

    I figured the dude in the photo was rocking it for style until I read further into the post.

    Style+ for keeping germs loacalized to your format, man in photo.

  81. Superfluous Moniker says:

    I think Michael Jackson ruined the surgical mask for America. Thanks a lot, Mike.

  82. StRevAlex says:

    Filth makes us stronger.

  83. TroofSeeker says:

    I worked in a place where the guys in the mixing room were required to wear particle masks. It became a fad to draw monkey mouths or monster teeth on them. Big red puckered lips are funny as heck, but few guys have the bells to wear them.

  84. Anonymous says:

    I’ve seen them in Mexico City. People there wear them because they think it protects them from smog & pollution.

  85. jheiss says:

    @23

    Funny, I grew up in Eugene and never had hay fever there. But I get it miserably every year here in Southern California. If it weren’t for the lovely drugs I might try the mask. Must have adapted to the local flora growing up.

  86. Anonymous says:

    I used to wear one when I was a little girl in S Korea. Most of the time it was because I was sick (runny nose, wet coughing/sneezing kind of sick), because it was more practical to wear the mask for a while and wash it later than to buy disposable tissues or carry a hankie that might be too late in reaching my mouth/nose. Also, sometimes my mom had me wear it to combat the amount of car pollution in the city (Seoul).

  87. wilberfan says:

    I wanted to wear a mask the last time we were going to fly a commercial airline somewhere.

    My companion begged me not to–assuring me that if the TSA didn’t pull me aside for hours that everyone else on the plane would freak to the point that they’d force me to leave the aircraft.

    I’d like to see a LOT more mask wearing in this country.

  88. Anonymous says:

    I occasionally see someone wearing a mask on the bus, subway, or in the street but generally it is a visibly Asian person. Just like using umbrellas as parasols on very sunny days, surgical masks are a custom that the West would do well to adopt more widely as population densities increase.

    Post-SARS, in Toronto, every walk-in medical clinic I’ve been to requires patients to don masks in the waiting room if they have even the slightest respiratory symptoms. It would be a great idea to keep wearing them once you leave, but it feels so strange. In my limited experience, non-Asian people tend to ignore masks on Asian wearers, but do give very quizzical or concerned looks to others… as though you must either be violently ill or a germophobe.

  89. earthmann says:

    In Bangkok, the mask everywhere. Pollution, I think, would be the chief reason. Near bus stops people don make-shift masks, if nothing else.

  90. The Lizardman says:

    This must go back quite a ways as a cultural thing (well before SARS, etc) as I remember first encountering it by seeing it on characters in video games – notably and most in the background crowds of fighting games – in the 80′s

  91. Mark Jaquith says:

    It’s fairly common in medical professions. You might see a hospital desk worker sporting a mask, even though they don’t actually perform any medical procedures. I had a job at a hospital while in college and I wore the mask if I had something. It’s less common in other situations, but I do see it. I think it’s a very courteous thing to do.

  92. Anonymous says:

    In the Philippines, you might see some people riding public transportation thats not air conditioned cover their mouth with a folded handkerchief. Policemen directing traffic and motorcycle riders may sometimes wear some sort of filter mask for protection against air pollution. You can buy masks designed for motorcycle riders here.

    But for surgical masks in public per se, very rare. Maybe transplant patients, TB patients and patients undergoing chemotherapy while in the mall, but its rare.

    - Vince

  93. OneTB says:

    My girlfriend saw an Asian woman wearing a mask while walking her dog last week in her pajamas. We live in a mostly quiet neighborhood in the south Bronx.

  94. IamInnocent says:

    I’ve learned something about the consideration we should have for transplant patients. I am surprised that no mention was made of the even higher risk the AIDS patients are at, at least during certain stages: fear of stigmatization or are the sources of infection too numerous to bother?

    I wonder too about how efficient this is in the end. For one thing healthy persons have to build an immune system. For the other, contagion by touch, directly or indirectly through infected cells on objects, is as important or more than the risk of spraying from a sneeze or a salivating talker: really considerate people should then wear gloves. Do they?

  95. dEFROG says:

    They’ve become more common in Hong Kong post-SARS.

  96. Jordan says:

    I saw an Asian woman wearing a surgical mask walking in downtown Iowa City, IA last week. I was vaguely aware of the Japanese phenomenon, so I did’t think much of it. Iowa City has a strong Asian community but also a lot of hospital workers, so I’m not sure which to ascribe it to.

  97. Anonymous says:

    I have noticed more surgical masks being worn here in Nashville, Tennessee, USA lately. In fact I am wearing one today at work as I have a cold but need to be at work. I have only had one person say anything negative and I promptly pulled it down and coughed on her. Serves her right.
    Otherwise I like to be a civilized being that doesn’t share my affliction.
    Take care,
    Davercles the Vociferous

  98. seijihyouronka says:

    Atomishche@32: They told me it’s ’cause they work with a lot of chemicals.

  99. seijihyouronka says:

    Also, I have at least read that they don’t offer *protection* against chemical vapors, but eh, and they also like to avoid the particles from nails they’re filing and whatnot.

    But that’s just a couple of ladies in my area!

  100. Tania says:

    I’m traveling throughout Southeast Asia right now, and in Vietnam the wearing of face masks is widespread but very different. It’s limited almost entirely to women, and you can find them made of pretty patterned fabrics. Ladies wear them while riding the ubiquitous Honda motorcycle hither and yon. When we asked some young women why, in a torrent of giggles they managed to convey that (1) it blocks dust and bugs when you’re on the motorcycle, and (2) it acts as SPF Unlimited sunscreen, very important for the white-skin-obsessed.

  101. dmonbot says:

    “Yeah, pretty sure a thin layer of cloth isn’t going to stop it.”

    That’s right, it’s totally ineffective and because it’s important to be fashionable during surgery?

  102. Anonymous says:

    Last week, I was at the four continents skating competition in Vancouver with my mother. Since there are a lot of Asians in Vancouver, and medal favorites included skaters from Korea, Japan, and China, there were a lot Asians at the competition, and my mother was puzzled by the number who wore surgical masks, scarves up over their noses, or simply held sheets of paper against their faces that covered the same area.

    Mind you, she regularly comes home from competitions with a kind of cold she jokingly refers to as ‘rink rot’, so maybe she should consider wearing one herself.

  103. anotherkate says:

    Re: nose filter thingies

    They actually are selling these at the Vermont Country Store website:
    http://preview.tinyurl.com/br4kzs

    Completely serendipitous, or evidence that God wants us to stick stuff up our noses?

  104. Taro 3Yen.com says:

    You want reasons? There are a zillion here in Japan…mostly mental:

    –Masks are worn to work AFTER taking a day off for illness to ‘prove’ the seriousness of one’s (fake) illness.

    –In Tokyo, masks are actually more common for pollen+diesel-exhaust allergies than for colds.

    –Masks are part of the creepy ‘Kegadol’ kulture aka injured Japanese idol cosplay.

    –A huge number of Japanese suffer from ‘hikikomori’-ism — acute social withdrawal.

    See:
    http://tinyurl.com/masks1
    http://tinyurl.com/masks2

  105. minamisan says:

    I’d definitely add the layer of anonymity, the fashion statement, and mild S&M/fetish play to the reasons listed.

    I too thought they were odd when I first came to Japan but I get it now, and have even rocked one myself a few times (put some herbs, eucalyptus oil or menthol on them to get high as you walk around).

    I’d never considered the surveillance camera aspect before, though. I can really see these taking off in the UK as a result… until they are banned and prohibited from import, that is.

  106. sampson says:

    I see the masks all the time in the Chinatown area of Boston. Definitely an Asian cultural thing.

  107. benher says:

    I remember getting the smackdown at work the first time I got the sniffles and wasn’t wearing one. Always keep a sharpie handy to scribble your own custom maws and best of all – the marker fumes last all day!

  108. Anonymous says:

    Robert here with a minor comment. One of the major reasons to wear a mask (that weren’t on your list) is that it keeps the humidity levels in your nasal tracts at a high level, which is very good for people who regularly dries out up there. Many people here sleep with their masks on for just this reason. I’m sure doctors can explain it more scientifically. Cheers!

  109. sg says:

    Echo #13- I used to see these all the time on BART coming from El C to the City in the morning. But now that I live in Eugene, I have got to agree with #23 too.

    Although I don’t see masks here frequently, I have read that the Native American name for the southern Willamette valley translates to “Valley of sickness.” And i’ve been sick as fuck during the winter all three years I’ve lived here, and had terrible pollen allergies during the summers too. I can’t understand why anyone would live here voluntarily and I can’t wait to move my fat ass to some place that’s less inhospitable to people with functional lungs.

  110. sg says:

    and this might be slightly off-topic, but: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13… 21. Mathematics is the language of nature.

  111. JerseyPete says:

    When I was working in Osaka, I caught a nasty cold. Since it was my software the 6 of us flew to Japan to test, I had to go to work. My buddies were nice enough to buy me a 3-pack of pink masks. It wasn’t too bad wearing a mask. I could let my nose run and lick the snots without anyone knowing.

  112. Anonymous says:

    I think it’s good manner to wear mask when sick. I did that couple days ago because I was having a cold. It’s common in Taiwan. You could spot a lot of people wearing mask in the subway.

  113. Anonymous says:

    Freaked me out initially in Shujuku Station, but my sister explained it to me. Brought back a nice Herro Kitty one for a friend back in the States.

    In Middle East, we wear them during yellow dust storms.

  114. duncan says:

    I lived in Taiwan for 7 months, and almost everybody who owns a scooter wears a surgical mask, albeit usually it is not white. It is usually colorful with designs on it. I think the main reason was to prevent the rider from inhaling the exhaust fumes from cars.

  115. Julian Bond says:

    Here in the UK, we’re notorious for struggling into work with ‘flu[1] when we really should be at home. When we get there we then have to shake hands with everyone and now we have to air kiss as well. I really wish we’d start:-
    - Not going out in public with the ‘flu
    - Accepting that refusing a handshake is not rude
    - Stop all this air kissing nonsense with colleagues
    - Wearing masks and gloves when we’re ill

    [1]Of course we’re also notorious for takign days of work due to the ‘flu when really we’ve got a hangover from too much booze, Es and drugs the night before.

  116. Seraphine says:

    I like the first reason “They are sick and don’t want their evil germs to infect others.” It’s very different from the place i live, where people are ignorant of others.
    The other reasons sound silly (are they true?)

  117. sojourner strange says:

    Seconding the Taiwan thing. And of course, immigrants bring the custom with them to the States.

  118. arikol says:

    Well, this seems to stem from japanese cultures way higher level of interdependentness (which leads to greater consideration towards your immediate group).
    Some above say that germs build up your immune system, which is true, but in crowded cities the load just gets too much pretty easily. You may catch all kinds of nasty illnesses pretty fast and wearing a mask probably won’t help you (maybe a bit but not that much, your eyes are still uncovered) but if the sick person does not sneeze his filth all over everyone that may lessen the risk of infection.

    So it’s probably a mixture of those to factors as well as lots of weird reasons like some that have been mentioned already. Japanese do some things very right, then some things in their society is just so incredibly wrong..

  119. echonomist says:

    Cool post, dc.

  120. Redmond Cooper says:

    I started doing it when I was after I read about the practice “They are sick and don’t want their evil germs to infect others” in Japan.
    Its sort of annoying having to explain why I am wearing the mask to anybody I meet while I’m out though.
    I’ve gotten most of my immediate friends and family to start doing it as well. So yay healthiness

  121. aninsomniac says:

    I think it has also become a fashion statement among the Akihibara walkers.

    Also, not sure if it’s true, but in manga, I’ve seen many “gang”/yankee sort of people wearing these masks. Maybe it’s also a fashion statement with the rowdy sort, or a way to cover their face, avoiding witnesses, etc.

    -anin

  122. zeroy says:

    If the practice of wearing surgical masks were to become common in US and UK, I’m sure we would hear a backlash from the proponents of the ubiquitous security cameras.

  123. Anonymous says:

    Saw a guy on Thursday at Victoria Station, here in London..

  124. Anonymous says:

    I’ve lived in Japan a few years now. The top reasons my Japanese roommates, students and friends give me for wearing masks are to keep others from getting sick, to keep yourself from getting sick and to avoid inhaling too much pollen (it’s hay fever season right now, in February, which sucks). I wear masks when I clean because the dust and mold here can be nasty; however, they annoy me. Can’t viruses travel through most masks?

    Post #4: I’ve never heard that before. Most Japanese people don’t need masks to hide facial expressions and emotions. Since they are expected to keep a “poker-face” in public with strangers,for example, on a train, it’s a practiced skill for most people. I’m sure some people use masks for non-health reasons, but I wouldn’t generalize it. I’ll pitch it to my friends, but I doubt it’s super-common.

    BTW: Draw a mouth on a mask. Instant Halloween costume.

  125. Marshall says:

    I see casual surgical mask wearers in Gardena, here in LA, a lot. All of the Japanese markets sell a variety of surgical masks, with awesome diagrams and art, sometimes the masks are for children and have characters on them. I’ve gotten used to seeing Asian folks in surgical masks, to the point where I’ve actually considered wearing one when I’m sick and have to go out and about.

    I can’t get used to seeing Korean women with shoulder-length driving gloves and giant visors to stay pale, though. That always seems really weird to me, for some reason. It’s not uncommon where I live to see Korean women dressed like a skiers from the future driving a huge luxury sedans.

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