Why Do Japanese People Wear Surgical Masks?

For first time visitors to Japan, seeing people out and about in surgical masks can be a bit confusing. Are they germaphobes? Do they have really bad allergies? Do they have some sort of awful incurable disease that requires them to wear a mask to prevent the spread of infection? Oh, God! Should I be wearing one too!?

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit of exaggeration. But for those unfamiliar with the way things are done in Japan, the whole surgical masks being worn in public thing can be kind of strange and unfamiliar. So why do they do it, anyway?

They’re Sick

By far the most common reason people in Japan wear surgical masks out in public is because they’re sick. Chances are it’s not some life threatening, dangerous and debilitating illness – they’re just wearing the mask to be considerate of others and to help contain the spread of germs. Just think about how many people cough or sneeze into their hands and then go on to touch the things we use every day. Door handles, guard rails, the poles and rings you hold onto on the subway. People touch a lot of stuff.

These surgical masks really help as far as containing germs and preventing the spread of contagious colds and illnesses. And people aren’t going to avoid you like the plague if you happen to be in a mask either. They’ll be more likely to avoid you if you aren’t wearing one (if you’re coughing up a storm that is). In most cases, you’ll be treated just like anyone else not wearing a mask.

When I was in Japan, one of our friends got sick on the trip but was still coming out with us and going to the local college and everything. The Japanese girls encouraged her to get a mask and wear it when she was socializing. She didn’t seem too keen on the idea and saw it as an inconvenience, and the Japanese girls seemed kind of disappointed in her when she wasn’t wearing it. They thought it was inconsiderate.

So if you’re in Japan and you get a cold or a bad cough, don’t be surprised if one of your Japanese friends asks you to get a mask to wear and definitely don’t be afraid to do so. I wish more people in the United States did this, especially those in schools (those illnesses spread like crazy).

Occasionally you’ll have somebody who’s pretty into Japanese culture wear a mask like this when they get sick, but because it’s not the social convention here in America, they usually (and unfortunately) end up looking kind of silly, even if their mask is quite fashionable.

Everyone Around them is Sick

Another reason you’ll see Japanese people wearing masks out in public is because they’re afraid of getting whatever illness that happens to be going around. Maybe it’s flu season or something and they’re just trying to avoid getting sick for the third year in a row because the hand sanitizer alone just isn’t cutting it.

It makes sense when you think about it. I mean, I usually come down with something near the start of summer (I’m actually getting over a cold right now) and I usually get sick again near the start of winter. Maybe if I wore a mask around these times I would be less likely to fall under the weather or avoid the illness altogether.

But like I said before, it’s not the social convention here in America and I’d look kind of silly coming into the office in the morning wearing a surgical mask. Oh well, NyQuil and Sudafed to the rescue once again.

They Have Bad Allergies

On the whole, wearing masks because of allergies isn’t as common as wearing one because of illness, but around hay fever season in Japan mask wearing out in public becomes a much more common sight. I touched on it in a post I wrote a while back about Hay Fever Hell in Japan, but along with masks, the Japanese have a lot of things around to combat allergies and you’ll definitely see a surge of mask wearers out in public during allergy season.

They’re a Bosozoku Bike Gang Member

If you see a bike gang member in Japan I’m sure that their surgical mask is not going to be what gives them away. But it is not unusual for a bosozoku member to wear a mask like this for no other reason than concealing their face. Most likely they aren’t wearing it for allergies or germ prevention (unless of course they are a very kind, caring, and socially considerate bosozoku).

And if you want to learn more about these folks, you can read all about ‘em in a post I did a while back entitled Violent Japanese Biker Gangs Just Not What They Used To Be.

They’re Too Embarrassed to Show Their Face on YouTube

Okay, so this isn’t technically in public, but you still see it a lot (if you’re on YouTube a lot and wander to the stranger corners of it like I tend to do sometimes). This one mostly applies to the ladies from what I’ve seen, but there are a lot of videos of Japanese gals doing some sort of choreographed dance or playing an instrument on YouTube/Nico Nico Douga. A lot of these girls are shy and will wear a mask like these to hide their face/identity.

Since I can’t actually ask them why they choose to do it, I can only guess. Perhaps they are shy. Perhaps they think they are unattractive. Or perhaps they think they are too attractive and want their dancing/instrumental skills to be judged honestly, not wanting to be complimented just because the audience thinks they’re hawt. See examples below.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Rk-wHjzPco&feature=related']

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9h7DmJeOS3s&feature=plcp']

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqphfvR4jcw&feature=related']

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLcqh1s3bDQ&feature=related']

And now you know pretty much all the reasons why you might see someone in Japan wearing a surgical mask. It’s not a weird or strange thing to do and most often they’re just looking out for the well being of others or trying to protect themselves from a seasonal illness or pollen invasion.

But what do you guys think about the wearing of masks like this? Wish you could wear one in your home country but are afraid of the social stigma? Have you ever done it in a Western country and got strange looks from others? Let us know in the comments!

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  • Cinthya

    Hey thanks for the post, now I understand, but I have a question: What about the eye patches? They’re also common than masks.

  • rehnen

    Ever heard about something called the immune system? There is a reason that you rarely see a doctor or nurse sick from a common cold. Being around them is actually in the long run good for you

  • rehnen

    Try to make as much fun of her as you can.

  • Anon

    I wore a mask to school once since I was sick. My friends were amused by it, and were entering into their otaku mode since most of us are really into anime. I didn’t really find it to be abnormal, since in korea most people wear it when they are sick like in japan. However, when I was walking around in the courtyard, I did get quite a lot of stares.

    Of course I took it off, but I don’t really understand the problem with trying to prevent spreading my cold to my peers.

  • Me

    I think that they are wonderful for the consideration of others. They should have thought about consideration of others with cleaning up that Fukushima mess. Now all of the waters are radiation contaminated. It’s horrible! =Fu ku to the rest of the world.


    yeah i guess the united states over here are not as nice as in japan oh japan i wish i could move to tokyo because i know my heart belongs there not with these selfish lazy greedy americans no offence to americans even though i am 90 percent right :D

  • monica

    Personally, I do not agree with the whole mask thing. My immune system is strong because it is exposed to the elements, not that I go around licking doorknobs, but constant exposure means that your body is also building immunities. If that many people in Japan are sick at any given time, it stands to reason that either the masks are ineffective, or that most Japanese have made their immune system more fragile by protecting themselves and others from common viruses, and therefore more likely to get sick when the occasion arises. For myself, I would rather risk getting a cold, than to not talk to someone face to face. To me, it is more rude to wear one. Western vs. Eastern views.

  • azumirm

    Primarily its not about disease or allergies. Its about hiding their identity from society and removing themselves from the feeling of being out in public. Not to mention: its fashionable in their minds. What they don’t realize is that the masks are causing more problems than they are solving. You spend all day out wearing a mask, coughing in to it, sneezing in it and wherever else. Then you get home or to the office and touch it. Spreading a concentration of whatever virus you have on to anything you touch.

  • Nzenit

    Seriously they do it because they are germofobs, period!

  • S_Daedalus

    You might want to look at the epidemiological research relating to the spread of TB, in which the use of various masks for the infected person for the purposes of public appearance and travel has been well explored.

    That being said, TB is a BIIIG bulky bacterium compared to the svelte viruses such as Influenza, so you’d expect a surgical mask to be far less effective. More, when it comes to controlling something like the spread of TB, part of the efficacy of the mask is the large bacterial load required to truly expose someone to infectious levels of airborne sputum containing TB. In the case of the flu, you require far less of the infectious agent, which is also a much smaller structure and more likely to pass through a simple mask.

    NIOSH, the body which (in addition to a lot of other things) rates filtration masks for their total efficacy and use, hasn’t found that N95 masks (filtering 95% of airborne particles, but not oils) are effective at preventing the spread of influenza. Part of the issue seems to be that 95% doesn’t cut it for the flu, TIL (Total Inward Leakage, a measure of how much exterior particulate can enter the breathing region), and probably other factors.

    Given that you need a very properly fitted N100 mask, which is cumbersome and uncomfortable to wear for long periods. More, these masks have the tendency to concentrate blood CO/CO2 levels, and drop O levels over time, meaning you don’t want your kid wearing this all day.

    Viruses are just so small that a surgical mask might as well not exist for them… that’s the bummer. For a bacterial infection, a mask is a huge benefit to everyone around you though, and a great way to avoid spreading disease.

  • soiboy

    > The exact effectiveness of surgical masks is unknown.
    Yep, that pretty much sums it up right there. Nuf said. :)

  • soiboy

    He didn’t have to, you backed him up! :)

  • soiboy

    Yep, purely a social phenomenon. They seldom make sense and rarely use logic.

  • soiboy

    Japanese people are paranoid about just about everything. Just one more example.

  • Ah Choo

    People being considerate? That’s nonsense.

  • Tyler Feldmann

    This isn’t a BBS board you moron. “Surgeons also scrub their hands to the elbow before surgery, cover any non-sterile clothes and hair with a layer of sterile clothing, and carefully avoid contact with anything that hasn’t been sterilized, for the duration of the procedure” way to compare apples to oranges, does a dentist do said practices? they still wear a mask everytime they operate but I don’t know any that do the rest of the garbage you said…some people are so stupid and try to compare apples to oranges

  • Mr. Deathriage

    Pfft, surgical mask. I wear a full face respirator :p jk, not a bad idea though

  • Gemma

    And some people, Tyler, feel the need to be rude and insulting to others in order it make themselves feel clever and superior. You should both get out more

  • Tyler Feldmann

    square up

  • sav

    It’s probably because the foreigners who come to America don’t honor OUR culture. It goes both ways. You have to be respectful to get respect. If she saw foreigners being disrespectful of customs in her native country, then she would not have thought twice about following someone else’s customs in their country. I’ve seen foreigners being very rude compared to what is socially normal here.