While traveling through Scandinavia two weeks ago, I had scant opportunity to monitor Japan’s anxiety over the sudden increase in confirmed cases of H1N1 flu that led to closings of schools in the Kansai region. Europe seemed barely concerned about the new flu and when I caught BBC World in hotel rooms or at friends’ homes the flu was mentioned only in relation to Japan, even if there were still more cases in North America. Nevertheless, the feeling of alarm in Japan was conveyed. All a report had to do was show footage of a crowd of people wearing face masks.

By the time I returned the alarm had begun to subside and schools were opening again. Self-reflection was in full swing, with the media wondering whether or not the authorities had over-reacted to the perceived seriousness of the threat. Most of the commentary has mentioned the people’s “hygienic habits” (eisei shukan) as if they were peculiar to the Japanese. Of course they aren’t. One of the few detailed reports I saw overseas was CNN’s ebullient financial reporter Richard Quest offering advice to business travelers on how to avoid the flu. He advocated vigorous and frequent hand-washing and avoiding intimate contact, but he offhandedly dismissed the use of masks, saying there was no evidence they were effective in preventing anyone from catching the virus.

So if Japan’s own sense of its hygienic habits could be seen as having an exceptional cast it probably comes down to this whole mask business, which offers the starkest contrast between Japan’s approach to the flu outbreak and the West’s — or the rest of Asia’s, for that matter.

“I just came back from Singapore,” said a prominent entrepreneur when he was a guest last week on the Nihon TV news show “Bankisha.” “I could tell who was Japanese because they were the only ones wearing masks.” He sounded almost disappointed, as if he’d expected his fellow Asians to get with the program. In an article about masks on the Internet news site J-Cast, the writer expressed having second thoughts about their effectiveness when he realized that “healthy people in countries where the flu has been widely reported don’t wear them,” but what really bothered him was the realization that people in Hong Kong don’t wear them, either.

Before confirmed cases of the flu multiplied in Japan, confidence in masks was unshakable, reinforced by the health ministry’s directive to wear them as a protective measure. Because of the customarily hectoring tone of public announcements in Japan, many individuals may wear masks out of a feeling of civic solidarity. This attitude explains the strident disapproval that some people expressed toward those who insisted on traveling overseas during the Golden Week holidays. These travelers, who booked their flights months ago and would likely have lost their tour deposits if they canceled, were characterized as being selfish, even anti-Japanese.

Consequently, people feel pressure to wear masks, but they also feel pressure not to wear them when they’re abroad. In the West, masks can be intimidating when worn in public.

American retailers often forbid patrons from entering a store with their faces covered, lest they be suspected of wanting to rob the place. In an article in the May 21 Sankei Shimbun, a journalist explained how she was ready to enter a Washington, DC press conference when her interpreter advised her to remove her mask. “If you keep it on,” the interpreter said, “you’ll just be telling everybody you’re already sick.” In the same article, a businesswoman told of wearing a mask on a New York subway, where everybody stared at her and one young man “even laughed at me.” Reportedly, the students who took part in a home-stay exchange in Canada last April and were confirmed with having the new flu after they returned declined to wear the masks their school had sent them because the local coordinator had said wearing them would bother their hosts. When they returned they became the targets of hate mail and phone calls.

Now that it seems obvious masks have little or no protective efficacy, the media is looking at the topic less seriously, talking more about how drug stores are running out of masks as well as the inventive ways people cope with the shortage.

An article about makeshift masks by Megumi Fukumitsu in the June 1 issue of Aera has attracted a lot of attention and initially comes off as one of those April Fools pranks popular in Western journalism. But the piece seems to be straightforward, even if Fukumitsu’s tone is ironic.

Imaginative types have designed masks out of everything from coffee filters (“which make you look like Donald Duck”) to feminine napkins (“which should be covered with another layer of cloth so that people don’t recognize what it really is”), and Fukumitsu critiques them with a wry matter-of-factness hinting at her doubt that they really make a difference. She closes the article with one of those circuitous quotes from a bureaucrat that are meant to avoid anything which could be taken as a recommendation or even statement of fact. Tsuyoshi Masakata, a “researcher” for a government safety organization, told her that “covering the mouth and nose with either cloth or paper can lead to protection against infectious droplets more or less, so a certain degree of effectiveness can be expected from homemade masks, I think.” In other words, don’t count on it.

Resourcefulness comes in many forms, and if you feel you have to wear a mask, then you might as well have some fun with it. When he was in Tokyo earlier this month, American movie star Zac Efron was asked by a reporter what he thought of all the female fans who greeted him at the airport wearing masks. “They decorate them very creatively,” he said. “I think it’s cool, but I don’t get to see their beautiful smiles.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.