6 reasons why Japanese people use face masks in daily life

6 reasons why Japanese people use face masks in daily life

With the coronavirus (COVID-19) out and about in Japan, face masks are now high in demand and out of stock everywhere. You visit a local pharmacy and see empty mask racks. You go on Amazon and find that one box is 10 times the regular price. You even start to notice that the toilet paper inventory is missing in the pharmacy…

But craziness aside, Japan has always had face masks. Why? What do people use it for? If you’re coming from the western world, it’s possible you’ve never seen them outside of surgery on an episode of House. 

Here, we explain six ways Japanese people typically use masks in their daily lives.

1. Out of courtesy for others: to prevent getting others sick.

It’s common courtesy to put on a mask if you’re coughing or sneezing so that you’re not spreading sickness. Typically, masks are good at blocking fluid from going out, helping to keep your cold to yourself. It’s kind of like sneezing into your armpit, but a lot more consistent. 

If you go around sneezing a lot without a mask on, you may get some worried looks from around you in Japan. Save yourself the awkward social interactions by getting a mask.

2. To protect yourself from getting sick. 

This is the primary reason for all the mask-hoarding this season. No one wants to get sick, so they’ll stockpile masks. Then they can go out into public, maybe get sneezed on, but still manage to not contract the virus. (Or so, that’s the hope.)

3. Hay fever. 

Beginning mid-February, Japanese hay fever season kicks into high gear. Hay fever (花粉症, kafunshō) is often caused by “sugi” (Japanese cedar) and “hinoki” (Japanese cypress) trees, tormenting many an allergy-sufferer. You’ll know when it’s coming, because advertising on the trains will start featuring masks.

Why the allergies? Well, the story goes that after WWII, Japan needed to rebuild. What better way than planting a ton of these strong and durable trees? Too bad they’re now the source of massive allergy attacks. 

So many Japanese people wear masks to prevent several months’ worth of misery. They can be pretty good at blocking tree pollen.

4. Because it keeps your face warm and prevents dryness.

This one I heard from my old boss a long time ago. It’s true. If the air is dry, and you have a relatively comfortable mask, it’s easier to breathe. Try it when you’re in Hokkaido or skiing out in Nagano.

5. Because people are self-conscious: It’s like an “underwear for your face.” 

Many Japanese people feel more comfortable in public when they wear a mask. It makes sense since hiding half of your face creates anonymity in a culture where people can be pretty judgmental.

This is especially so if you’re a woman. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a cultural norm for women to have makeup on when outdoors, because, well, people be judging. It’s a hassle. So, many women will simply wear a mask if all they want to do is hit the Seven-Eleven in the middle of the night. Who needs foundation when you can hide your face with a mask, right?

6. Because you sleep on the train or bus

Pretty specific, but true. If your commute is long and you expect some drool, cover it up with a mask. It may also be more comfortable if the air in the vehicle is dry.


Do masks in Japan seem a little less mysterious now? Go on, try it out. Or not – maybe wait until those prices come back down.

Either way, stay safe, and wash your hands!