Why were the Japanese wearing masks long before the coronavirus?


During the pandemic of the Spanish flu in the early 20th century, which killed nearly 390,000 Japanese, the country understood the health benefits of covering their mouths and began to implement the mask as an element that is part of their culture.

The coronavirus pandemic, It has infected more than 13 million people and caused nearly 550,000 deaths around the world, it has changed us in many ways: the way we interact with others, how we use spaces, the way we travel.

The way we dress.

And one of those new clothes that are now part of the everyday landscape are the masks.

At first the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended the mask only for medical use. But as the virus spread throughout the world, its use became popular as a protection measure in front of the covid-19.

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As the inhabitants of different latitudes adjust to this new garment, Japan has been decades – even centuries – using the mask as an element of your daily life.

“When someone is sick, out of respect for the other, they wear the mask to avoid infecting others,” Mitsutoshi Horii, professor of sociology at the University of Shumei in Japan, tells the BBC.

“But it is not the only reason why the Japanese have this habit so established. Not only is it a selfless collective practice, but a self-protective ritual of risk ”, Add.

Several analysts point out that the widespread use of the mask, which has been seen in Japanese society for decades, is one of the reasons behind the low rate of infections and deaths from covid-19 (until this July 15, the country accounted for more than 22,000 cases and 984 deaths).

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It is the lowest rate among the seven countries considered as the largest economies on the planet (USA, China, Germany, France, UK and Canada).

But where did that habit arise within Japanese culture?

“Dirty breath”

There are records that show that during the Edo period (1603-1868) people covered their faces with a piece of paper or with a branch of sakaki, a plant considered sacred in some regions of the country, to prevent their “dirty breath” from coming out ”To the outside.

“There are some references to this type of practice in books, but the truth is that they were not extended as they are now, ”explains Horii.

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“Back then, although there was a concept of cleanliness, there was not as much awareness of the effects that viruses and microbes have on our health as now,” said the sociologist.

The truth is that, according to Horii, there is a clear moment in history in which lThe masks are incorporated between the habits of the Japanese, and that moment is the pandemic due to the so-called Spanish flu of the early 20th century.

Covers in Japan.-
Several Japanese children cover their faces with face masks during the Spanish flu pandemic in the early 20th century. (Photo: Getty Images)

In Japan, that pandemic caused about 23 million infections and 390,000 deaths, in a country that at that time had 57 million inhabitants.

“The Japanese government combined a strategy of vaccination, isolation, and the use of surgical masks or face masks to stop this pandemic, which ultimately helped control the crisis,” Horii says.

“The thing is that people assumed it as part of their folklore, noting that the masks it was alson a barrier between clean air and pollution ”.

However, the use of this protection during the Spanish flu pandemic was a widespread practice around the world.

But then, why did only the Japanese (and some other Asian societies to a lesser extent) continue to wear masks as part of their culture?

For Georgetown University professor of Japanese history George Sand, there are several factors that influence the country’s adoption this protective garment as part of their day to day.

“There is a false belief that the Japanese adopted this measure because their governments are authoritarian and it is a blind obedience to government regulations, but it is not,” says Sand.

“They did it because they trusted science. The use of masks was a scientific recommendation, seen by the Japanese at the time, in a country that was in a process of industrialization, such as adaptation to the modern world, as a technological advance, “he adds.

S epidemicARS

After the pandemic, both Horii and Sand point out, what happened was a phenomenon of “Do what others began to do” and that helped popularize the mask.

“In the new millennium, face masks in Japan became ubiquitous, not so much because of state directives or cosmopolitan aspirations, but because of what is known in psychology as a ‘coping strategy’, in addition to an aesthetic choice,” says Sand.

The coping strategy, according to the theory, encompasses the external and internal resources that a person uses to adapt to a stressful environment.

One of the greatest proofs of the habit of mouth-covering in public in Japanese culture was the epidemic of Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which hit Southeast Asia in 2003.

“While in the rest of the region the virus strongly affected its inhabitants, in Japan there were no victims,” ​​says Horii.

Japanese woman with a mask
Japan has been one of the few countries that has not implemented a quarantine as strict as in other countries in the region. (Photo: Getty Images)

In China, SARS caused more than 5,000 infections and nearly 350 deaths. In Japan there were only two infections and no fatal cases.

“And that not only proved that the scientists were right about the use of face masks to avoid contagion, but also strengthened its use much more”, the academic notes.

Horii adds that the emergency that the country experienced in 2011, after a tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear power plant, also helped to install even more the need to protect itself against what the environment brought.

With the appearance of the coronavirus, Japan established the strategy to fight the virus in a different way: it did not make prolonged confinements.

“It is a cultural issue. They adopted the use of masks for many reasons: to protect others or themselves, to hide their lack of makeup, to preserve their privacy, or simply because they thought the masks looked good, but never because of a government imposition, “concludes Sand.

“And that, when facing a pandemic of the gravity that we are experiencing, can make the difference of hundreds of thousands of deaths that we are seeing in the US or those that Japan has, which do not reach 1,000,” he adds.

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