• SHARE

What’s happening in Japan is written all over our faces — our blank, expressionless, masked faces. Never before, it seems safe to say, have so many people gone about masked.

Thus we confront the microbes that assault us.

Are the microbes disconcerted? It seems not.

“As self-protection, your mask is practically useless,” says Shukan Gendai magazine this month. Commercial face masks, medical authorities say, can block particles measuring 3 to 5 micrometers. Wear it against pollen, by all means. The coronavirus currently raging, however, measures 0.1 micrometer.

A country that porously defended would be helpless indeed, barring very adroit diplomacy. That’s out of the question here.

Why is a mask like a hospital waiting room? Because both foster a false sense of security.

“The most dangerous place is not the concert venue or the packed commuter train,” Shukan Gendai says. “It’s the hospital waiting room.”

It stands to reason. All close, confined, crowded spaces are viral. How much the more so a refuge for the sick? And yet the magazine finds, to its horror, waiting rooms crowded as usual with outpatients keeping nonessential medical engagements that could easily be put off.

A Tokyo orthopedic surgeon’s clinic is a case in point. It’s packed early one morning with 70-odd people, mostly elderly, waiting their turn for rehabilitation therapy.

“The female therapists are very friendly and very conscientious,” says a 71-year-old patient. “And with everything covered by insurance, coming here has become almost an everyday habit.”

He’s masked, of course. Everyone is masked. The doctors must know, though the patients may not, how little that’s worth — but business proceeds as usual, with waits as long as four hours shrugged off as an agreeable way to pass the time. “I have lots of ‘rehab friends,’” the patient says, “so it’s always pleasant to be here.”

In 2018, 18,560 people nationwide were infected in hospitals by antibiotic-resistant microbes, statistics cited by the magazine show.

Consider the mask as a cultural phenomenon. That may come closer to its true significance than the medical standpoint, says Hannan University psychologist Shigeru Yoshikawa. His observations are part of a feature the Asahi Shimbun ran in February under the title “The Mask-Dependent Society.” Yoshikawa suggests another name: “the faceless society.”

Beginning as a defense against colds, flu and pollen, the mask gradually became habitual. We felt naked without it. Think of all those strangers — tens, hundreds of thousands, it may be, in the course of a single day — who saw your face. Granted their total indifference; still, anyone choosing to take a whimsical interest in you could freely observe your features and expression, the state of your make-up, your age lines and worry lines, whatever — drawing conclusions to his or her heart’s content, unbound by even the most elementary constraints of truth. Outrageous though they may be, those conclusions will constitute “you” as far as that individual is concerned. So what? Nothing and, yet, once the thought takes root, its eerie impact is hard to shake.

Such are the perils of exposing your face to the massed masses. Better be faceless. The impulse antedates the coronavirus, and will outlast it, Yoshikawa predicts. It’s harmless in one sense; in another sense not, he feels.

There’s more to communication, he explains, than the exchange of words. We study each other’s facial expressions, and learn much from them. Emotions such as sympathy or anger, pity or contempt, friendship, indifference, wariness and dislike are generated by, or detected in, the eyes certainly, but also the set of the mouth. Is it smiling or serious? If smiling, how boldly or timidly? If serious, how grimly or reassuringly? Faceless, Yoshikawa says, “we know less of each other. It’s harder to penetrate a person’s feelings. We sympathize less with each other. Close relationships may grow less close.”

The mask represents, he says, “the anonymity of the internet transferred to the real world.”

What this might mean in “the real world” may therefore be gauged by what it means on the internet. That theme is the core of a dialogue published by Bungei Shunju magazine (April) between novelist and essayist Mariko Hayashi and neuroscientist Nobuko Nakano. The key word in it is “bashing.”

It’s hard to know which spread first: the English loan-word, or the temper it describes. Net anonymity encourages and intensifies bashing. It frees us from all accountability. Who gets bashed? Anyone potentially; most often, those who are least anonymous, most exposed, most famous: celebrities.

Do we idolize them today only to bash them tomorrow? Three who may suspect as much are actor-model Masahiro Higashide, actress-model Erika Karata and actress-singer Rebecca Eri Rabone, aka Becky. Hayashi and Nakano marvel at the fury of the public response to these celebrities’ marital infidelities. Who cares? What’s it to us? Are our own lives so spotless that we can afford the luxury of moral outrage?

“It’s like ants swarming around sugar,” Nakano says. Like the masked swarming around the unmasked.

We can’t help ourselves, maybe. Viewing our social behavior through her neurological lens, Nakano sees the brain at war with itself, torn between contradictory genetic inheritances that divide our nature between social and anti-social impulses. There are snippets of DNA in us called arginine vasopressin (AVP), which Nakano tartly calls “the infidelity gene.” Go forth and multiply, it says in effect. Monogamy is a social, not a biological virtue. AVP had free rein before society evolved and, with it, certain rules of behavior called morality.

Well, morality’s fun too. Marriage underpins social stability. Infidelity undermines marriage. Therefore it undermines society. Therefore your infidelity is my business. Therefore the pleasure I get from bashing you is righteous pleasure. The dopamine it generates is my just reward.

Nakano mentions a scientific experiment involving 6-year-old children. They’re shown a kid cheating in a game and told, “This child will be punished.” Then they’re asked, “Do you want to see it?”

Of course they do.

“(It’s) a cruel experiment!” Hayashi exclaims. So it is. Cruelty and virtue seem odd bedfellows, but cruelty is shy. Virtue gives it confidence. It’s a veil, you might say. Or a mask.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History,” is now on sale.

RELATED PHOTOS

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner