Contrary to common misconceptions, most surgical masks do not protect against air pollution and therefore smog is not the primary reason people wear face masks in Japan. Pollution in Japan is not as much of a concern as it can be in China and the majority of these masks do not prevent the wearer from breathing in minute particulate. In addition, as they are loose-fitting, contaminated air can flow in and around the sides of the mask. Surgical masks were originally designed to prevent droplets from escaping, thus they are more effective for protecting others than oneself.
So what is the purpose of wearing face masks in Japan? One of the main reasons as implied above, is to try and stop germs from spreading. In a country with so many people sharing a comparatively small space, especially in Tokyo, the epidemic risk of colds and influenza is an everyday issue. Everybody has to feel concerned and do their best to not infect others with cold germs. Wearing a face mask is one of the easiest ways to protect your neighbor.
As “Kafunshō” (花粉症), or hay fever in Japan is really common, many people opt for a mask as a protection against pollen during the first four months of the year. A long and hot summer one year means a lot of pollen for the following year. During pollen season it is recommended to wear a mask even for people who are not allergic as they might develop an allergy by inhaling pollen regularly. Also, weather forecasts usually provide information about the expected amount of pollen in the air during this season.
Public health is not the only reason why face masks are so popular in Japan. Many people wear surgical masks for non health reasons. As winter can get pretty tough in Japan, wearing a face mask can help to keep your face warm and protect against the cold wind. Some people also use it as a social accessory, or actually more like an “anti-social accessory”. Someone wearing a mask and other accessories like headphones can seem harder to communicate with which is sometimes exactly the desired effect. Some women also confess that face masks are really convenient when they want to go out without putting on their makeup.
Lastly, because Japan is such a trendy country, face masks are also used as a fashion accessory. What was first made for health purpose became a new trend and companies even started to sell customized face masks with different designs and patterns. This trend is very similar to the one of eye patches in Japan.
Whether it is in order to not contaminate other people when your are sick, to protect your face from the cold during winter, to cut off social interactions, or simply to complement your outfit, wearing face masks in Japan has become a totally normal custom that anyone can do without having to worry about getting strange looks.