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?
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. 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.
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.