Getting a glimpse behind the mask

Ubiquitous face-wear inefficient at warding off flu but can keep your own germs in check


It happens in Japanese cities every winter and spring — the mask attack.

These white strips of cloth obscuring your fellow commuters’ faces have long been a common way to ward off influenza and hay fever, but their popularity is soaring higher than ever this winter because of frequent reports about an outbreak of a new type of flu.

“The media have been repeatedly giving a warning of a new type of influenza outbreak, so people may have thought they should store some masks and use a mask more often,” said Yukihiro Hosoe, manager of the advertising and marketing strategy department at Kowa Co., Japan’s leading health care product company.

Sales of masks from September to December increased 1.5 times compared with a year earlier, he said.

The firm conducted an online survey of 520 men and women at the end of the year to find out why they bought masks.

According to the survey, 72 percent bought masks to keep from catching the flu.

As far as catching a cold, however, Hosoe said wearing a mask will not offer 100 percent protection.

“The best use of a mask is when it is worn by a person who already has a cold,” he said.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry also said people cannot completely avoid inhaling the potentially infectious aerosol droplets from coughs and sneezes by wearing a mask because air comes in through the gap between the mask and face. It is more effective if sick people wear masks, it said.

One reason masks are popular in Japan is that many people commute by public transportation. In Tokyo especially, trains are packed and people stay on them a long time, unlike in New York or London, according to Hosoe.

“That’s why mask sales are much higher in the metropolitan area than in the countryside,” he said.

Masks in Japan date back to the early 20th century, when they were seen as a way to keep warm. Use of gauze masks spread widely after World War II, Hosoe said.

By the time the 1980s rolled around, masks also became common in spring hay fever season. He said gauze masks for flu and hay fever that Kowa started manufacturing in 1985 became a big hit despite a price tag of ¥350, nearly double the cost of the company’s previous version.

Hay fever became a major issue around that time because cedar trees planted by the government after the war for flood control and afforestation were reaching maturity.

In 2003, health care company Unicharm Corp. entered the market with a disposable “three-dimensional” mask, designed especially for pollen prevention.

According to the company, a three-dimensional mask fits the face perfectly, making it easier to breathe through than a normal mask. Its unit price is set lower than a gauze mask or a mask for flu because people with hay fever buy them every year and use them over a longer period than people suffering from a cold.

Although the gauze type commanded 80 percent of the mask market in 2002, disposable masks have gradually taken over, now accounting for eight out of every 10 sold.

The health ministry also encourages people with a cold or the flu to wear a disposable nonwoven mask that blocks 95 percent to 99.9 percent of air particles, instead of a gauze mask, which is less effective at blocking germs from coughs and sneezes.

The mask market continues to grow, jumping from ¥5 billion in the 1980s to ¥120 billion in 2007, according to Hosoe.

Health care companies have a special challenge selling masks to women reluctant to wear them because they are not fashionable.

In 2005, Kowa started selling masks in a light pink color for women designed to make their face look healthy.

“In fact, as many pink masks are sold as white masks. Some consumers tell us they are cute,” Hosoe said.

Kowa also developed a mask with a special coating to avoid spoiling makeup.

Unicharm even debuted its “Mask Collection” drive in 2007 in collaboration with GiRLSGATE.com, a blog server for young female celebrities, to propose various fashion styles that go well with masks.

Some women, meanwhile, find masks useful for a different reason — they provide a handy cover when they aren’t wearing makeup.

“Japanese women don’t like going out without makeup, but they don’t have time in the morning,” said Chieko Ito of Kowa’s advertising and marketing strategy department. “So they just draw on their eyebrows and put a mask on.”

In this occasional series, we focus on hot topics, people, events and trends in today’s Japan.