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Tea Leaves

Empire of the masks

The world follows Japan’s lead on face coverings

In Tokyo, mask-wearing is part of daily life.   © Masayuki Kozono

The other day a present from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe slid into my mailbox. I was not the only recipient. Every household in Japan received a similar packet containing two white, washable face-masks.

Abe’s gesture was not universally appreciated. There was mockery on social media, and political embarrassment followed when some of the masks proved defective. The larger point, though, is that Abe had seen that face-masks had become well-nigh unobtainable and knew that was politically unacceptable. In a health crisis involving air-borne germs or pollutants, the Japanese public has come to demand and expect masks.

Japan -- well known for its obsession with hygiene and public safety -- is a huge user of masks, with annual sales of more than 5 billion in pre-coronavirus times. The phenomenon even became a subject of research by foreign sociologists. A 2012 study noted that “in foreign eyes, mask-wearing appears to be a unique and curious practice particular to Japan.

“The only well-known wearer in the developed world was the late Michael Jackson, identifying the practice with eccentric hypochondria.” Another scholar declared mask-wearing to be a “disciplinary device in neoliberal politics,” caused by Japan’s changing economic structure.

It seems we are all neoliberals now. Nearly all countries grappling with the coronavirus have become heavy users of masks -- if, that is, they can get hold of them. What now looks “curious” are clips of U.S. President Donald Trump not wearing masks in situations where everyone else does. In countries such as Austria, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Israel, masking up has become a legal requirement.

Man behind the mask: author Peter Tasker

Masks have also become symbols of the tensions between globalization and national security. Over 70% of masks used in the U.S. come from China, a situation that is no longer tolerable. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told a G20 meeting in April “overdependence on other countries as a source of cheap medical products and supplies has created a strategic vulnerability for our economy.”

Japan, which migrated most of its mask manufacture to Chinese plants from the early 2000s, has already reacted. Iris Ohyama, a venerable consumer goods manufacturer, is taking advantage of government subsidies offered to Japanese companies moving operations out of China. From this summer it will churn out masks in north Japan at the rate of 150 million pieces a month.

Japan was not the first country in which the public made prophylactic use of face-masks. During the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 several U.S. cities made mask-wearing obligatory in public gatherings. According to Nancy Tomes, a historian at Stoney Brook University, “Mask wearing gained considerable popularity as an emblem of public spiritedness and discipline… Fashionable women made theirs of chiffon.” That sounds like Japan today, down to the fashion masks you see in trendier parts of Tokyo.

Although some accounts from that period credited masks with reducing infections in the U.S., the case was not proven and the practice was abandoned. In Japan, though, it was a different story. Mask-wearing had been introduced as a modern medical practice and was strongly recommended by the government. For police and soldiers, and in the colonial possessions of Korea and Taiwan, it was compulsory.

When further flu outbreaks occurred in 1934, 1949 and 1957, the Japanese public reached for their masks. There were other reasons,  too. Air pollution was a huge problem in the 1960s, and has reappeared recently with regular dousings of “yellow sand” and particle-laden smog blown over from China.

Then there is the “national illness” of hay fever, caused by the mass planting of cedar trees in the Japanese Alps. From the 1980s onward, clouds of headache-inducing, throat-lacerating cedar pollen have descended on Tokyo early in the year. As a sufferer from pollen allergy, I never bought the idea that mask-wearing was some bizarre Japanese ritual. It was common sense.

Masks are also social signals, showing that you are part of the team; that you care about your own and others’ health. In a pandemic, such solidarity is vital. But do masks offer protection against viruses? In pre-coronavirus times, informed opinion - at the World Health Organization and America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – was skeptical. Now, though, the experts have changed their tune. A UK government advisory states that face-masks are at least half as effective as medical masks and recommends they become standard safety equipment, like seatbelts and cycling helmets.

Several other European governments plan to use them as part of their strategies for re-opening their economies. Let’s hope that proceeds smoothly. As an experience, being masked up definitely beats being locked down.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research

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