Japan’s culture of the masked masses

wearing masks in japan
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The mother of all inventions would indeed be necessity, but what do you make of a nation seeking out necessity instead in something that had once been luxury or custom, and not part of the common existence? How exactly do you put in perspective the continuity of a ‘tradition’ that today has to be enforced in other more ‘modern’, or more appropriately bringing into use the surprisingly synonymous connotation of the term ‘westernised’, spheres of existence of the world for it’s own greater good?

The thought might be baffling but it indeed is the reality of today that sees the whole world being forced into accepting an exploration of what is culture for one part of its identity. With the coronavirus pandemic here to stay for a good couple of years, at the very least, as warned by the experts, there has been brought about significant changes in the ways of living of the human populace. But set aside lives and livelihoods and the normalcy of past times taken for granted, and the issue today still boils down to the very nature of it- existence. The existential crisis perhaps has never been more graver and realer for anyone of us than what this pandemic is leading us into, and yet we still have to live through the same, battered and bruised and perhaps even bitter, but not beaten out yet.

In this war against the 21st century pandemic that itself is as unpredictable as the times in which it has emerged, it however isn’t any characteristically modern day trailblazing discovery that has managed to push us all through the crisis, though not out of it, not yet. Even as vaccines have been developed with a fair shot at efficacy and frontline workers continue to act out one miracle after the other, the logistics of it all has involved something remarkably simpler and traditional. With hand washing and social distancing and face masking touted to be the most legitimate ways of safeguarding ourselves from this onslaught of a minuscule virus, the human race is once again bound by the experience of past encounters of similar nature to earn for themselves another chance at survival. And while with a year down the ruins, the opening up of the economy and the world means that frequent hand washing and maintaining adequate distance from others in this shrinking world burdened with overpopulation aren’t as viable options as they had been during the global seeking of respite in the lockdown, we are left with the solitary option- to don face masks appropriately and properly, and ensuring the strings hold them tight in their place, as if our lives depended on it. Because it indeed does now, more than ever.

It’s easier said than done though- this notion of our life hinging on a mere piece of fabric, seemingly not too sightly and feelingly not very comfortable as well, with also somewhat restrictive attributes to it, physically as well as symbolically of which we find it better not to get into the details of, masks really cannot emerge to be a staple of the whole human identity. Or can they? Notwithstanding the eye roll inducing reactions that some ‘enlightened’ folks out there harbour, masks though have never restricted the domain of humans in all their individuality. If anything, it has only bettered the chances of its continuity, as is evident in the masked practices of quite a few Asian countries, most prominently Japan. Masks in Japan are so ingrained into the country’s psyche that today they have come to embody the essence of being not just a medical necessity but also evolving into other spheres of the human existence, from the spiritual to the religious to even the fashionable.

In fact, in its very basis in growing into the facades of the Japanese experience, masks found use for reasons catering to religion. Known for its many shrines, the Japanese norm of the religion requires people visiting these holy places to cover their mouths with paper or leaves of the sacred Japanese cleyera to prevent their breath from defiling the inner sanctity of the premises. Finding rooting most significantly during the Edo period, the tradition continues till date, with the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto and the Otori Grand Shrine in Osaka still dwelling in their belief of the particular custom. In religions like Buddhism and Shintoism, particularly widespread a practice in Japan, this spiritual role of the masks is an adherence to such beliefs that stress also the importance of breathing techniques as a way of maintaining health and happiness, making therefore the covering of the face to ensure cleanliness of the air breathed in a custom that is almost impossible to do away with in the country.

Even venturing beyond religion, the use of masks in Japan owes its secondary attribute to a reason that had not evolved to bring into involvement the occurrence of epidemics yet. Sometime during the 17th and 19th centuries, alluding again to the Edo period, masks took on a different nor of acceptance in Japan. Back in the 1870, the people who used to work at coal mines and factories started wearing masks in an attempt to prevent inhalation of dust. So distinctive was the use of masks among the miners of the now UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine that they even had their own name, Fukumen meaning literally ‘lucky masks’. Made by applying persimmon tannin to several sheets of silk cloth and then placing the flesh of Japanese plums in between them, Fukumen masks also very intricately embodied typically Japanese characteristics. But what’s really astonishing about these masks old at least a century and a half are that they look strikingly similar to the modern day masks, and were popular back then mostly in black since the dirt would not stand out on that expanse of color.

old masks in japan
Source: Web Japan

It wasn’t until the 20th century, precisely the second decade of it, when the Spanish flu pandemic wiped away a third of the world’s population, affecting also Japan in a measure unprecedented, that led to the modern surge of mask wearing in the Asian nation. Continuing with it had been other such contagious breakouts that followed, like the Hong Kong flu of 1968- 69, that lend mask wearing an altogether different status in Japan. The 21st century has been no different, with air borne viruses causing global health scares like the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and that of the swine flu in 2009, and Japan had already been on track long enough to take on the equally uncontrollable wave of the current COVID- 19 pandemic.

Over all these years and experience of mask wearing, Japan today has evolved into a nation where masks are more custom than commands, with the cultural beliefs of the nation formulated in a manner that encourages its people to work in conformity with the global good. Thus, face masks came to become an unmissable part of the existence in Japan, where every citizen, young or old, takes to wearing one with no any fuss about it. And in working behind this principle of covering the nose and the mouth is not just the intention to stay safe oneself but also to ensure that others do not get infected from them. For it is only in a culture as considerate and responsible as one that the Japanese resides in that it is possible to take on this whole exercise in purported discomfort of oneself, in regard for a greater good of the society.

Also at play are other health concerns that might not be exclusive to Japan but are nonetheless more common an encounter in this part of the world. Every spring, as Japan turns into a fairyland of immense prettiness, what with cherry blossoms blooming in full swing, what ensues is a deluge of hay fever induced sniffs and sneezes and runny noses, with a considerable number of people harbouring an allergic reaction to the pollen and the dust in the air, making shielding behind face masks an unavoidable necessity. It helps also that masks are seen as feasible ways of preventing the effects of rampant pollution get unto you, thereby having more and more Japanese swearing by (and under) them.

But while in such continuance masks can be viewed as somethings that have always been necessary to the Japanese mode of life, it also is equally true that these items of religious origins and of health and societal conformities have today expanded to rest instead in such essences that are a further reflection of life in the country. An aspect of existence though not just relevant in Japan but also in other Asian countries, most prominently in South Korea, sees face masks gain a substance not intended, nor conceived possible out of it. In a society where one’s image is drawn so much upon on appearance, youngsters, especially females use the masks as a cover up for days when they can’t be bothered to put on makeup, but at the same time cannot risk appearing in public without it. That itself might be quite disturbing a trait attributed to the growing prevalence and popularity of something supposed to be aiding a healthy existence, though manifesting through ways like these to be an entity contrary to its nature.

Another similar interpretation of masks in the modern day Japanese way of life is its usage as a means of withdrawing from the real world. As a nation of a generation of people increasingly wanting to keep to themselves, the Japanese often yield the power of the mask to their advantage, by using it as a means of conveying their ‘unavailability’, of wanting to go unseen and unbothered, of preferring to keep the society out of bounds to them. A social etiquette still, but in an interpretation varied from its traditional notions, wearing masks have permeated the folds of life in Japan to an extent from which there is no escape.

japan face masks as fashion
Source: Pinterest

Even more diametric has been the interpretation of face masks as a form of fashion in Japan. The thrust on appearance perhaps is the driver behind this burgeoning need of folks to look good even with their masks on, leading to the formation of such terms as masuku bijin or masked beauty referring to women who look pretty in them! Catering to this induced demand have been masks that come in all prints and colors and designs, from anime characters to metal icons to cultural places and representations and virtually any and everything that can be encountered out in the world. More comfortably functional masks have been designed as well, like the ones that prevents glasses from fogging or those that cut out ultraviolet rays or even those that can hold ice packs to keep the wearer cool in the sweltering summer heat. With such innovations and emphasis on making masks that suit custom needs and cater to exclusive demands, it indeed is natural that the Japanese show no signs of giving them up yet.

But while Japan have lived with its masks for generations now, most of the countries of the globe are only learning to accept the unappealing appeal of it, albeit reluctantly. It would take some before the coronavirus pandemic induced compulsion to don masks just about everywhere turns into a ‘trend’ or persists at least in its logical premises. But even when it does, reaching the Japanese level of clinging to this piece of cloth for dear life will take generations of us to perfect. Much like the trailblazer that Japan has been in so many aspects of life and living, so it is in this expanse of the masked man as well.


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