Masks have become a very hot-button topic as of late as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although mask wearing is very common in countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and China, the custom of wearing a mask has not caught on in other countries.
The purpose of this article isn’t to wade through the scientific merits of mask-wearing vs non-mask-wearing, but to share the opinions of a cross section of foreigners living in Japan. Keep in mind that this is a small handful of respondents, so not all backgrounds/walks of life are represented. In addition, our hope is that this can become an open discussion, so feel free to share your thoughts and experiences with mask wearing!
In our interview group of eight resident foreigners in Japan, only one person wore a mask prior to coming to Japan. It’s important to note this as we take a look at our data, since exposure (or in this case, non-exposure) to mask-wearing will frame a lot of preconceptions about the practice. We can also assume that in our group of expats, not many are from Asian countries with a mask-wearing culture.
Our first data point to examine is whether foreigners have conformed to the mask-wearing culture in Japan.
Majority of respondents replied that they do wear masks in Japan. Fitting in with the culture is possibly an effect of living and working in Japan.
Why do you wear a mask?
As to reasons why one might choose to (or not to) wear a mask, let’s take a look at what our group had to say:
“I tend to stay home when I get something contagious, but it’s also kind of annoying to wear a mask. The only time I do is if I am very sick and I am going to the doctor. I feel like I’m making a big deal out of my cold when I wear a mask and I don’t want to make people feel uneasy.”
“I wear a mask when I’m sick.”
“Usually don’t see it as a necessity unless in extreme circumstances like COVID 19”
“If I’m sick, I wear it to not infect others.”
“At first, I was really against the idea of wearing masks. I couldn’t understand what the point was. But as I became more culturally aware of my role in society (I know this sounds super dumb, I don’t know how else to describe it) as a foreigner, I made an effort to start doing things a little more Japanese. ‘When in Rome,’ right? Same as with taking off shoes at the doorway, I wanted to show that I am aware of and will also practice the customs of the country I reside in. Anyways, I found out that masks are great for all sorts of things, not just being sick: can keep unwanted odors out (helpful on packed trains), keeps the face warm in winter, helps during allergy season, and just acts as an additional barrier between you and whatever you encounter in the city. I try not to leave home without them now.”
“Because of the coronavirus I have to wear one at work all the time now, but before that it was only when I was sick.”
“I wear a mask when I’m sick, and currently because I am potentially a carrier to coronavirus.”
“Only really wear a mask on the trains now and at work if I have a cold. I had to wear a mask when I was an English teacher and having lessons with students.”
It seems as if most foreigners associate masks with illness, or that could be just due to the current state of the world right now. But, another interesting factor to examine would be occupation and social groups. It might be that those working in foreign companies or those who don’t have a social group with Japanese nationals aren’t interacting with mask-wearing individuals on a regular basis.
Although we can see that 75% of our respondents choose to wear masks in Japan now, we can learn a little bit more when we find out when that shift in mentality occurred.
When did you start wearing masks in Japan?
The results are varied, and we can see that not everybody has the same experience when it comes to deciding to don masks.
Our respondents also added their own thoughts about mask wearing in Japan:
“People always say masks look super weird on me because I have a big nose, which is apparently a good thing here.”
“COVID19 has changed my habits with wearing masks but once it’s through I’ll probably return to not wearing a mask.”
“I think masks can be helpful but not when everyone just pulls them down to sneeze or doesn’t wear them properly.”
The practice of mask-wearing is in the news in countries across the world right now. And there is a small wave of anti-immigrant sentiment brewing over the custom of mask-wearing. The Financial Times report that locals in Hong Kong are becoming irritated at expats and foreigners who are refusing to wear masks (source). The lack of mask-wearing culture in western countries could play a role in how westerners are reluctant to adopt the practice.
It’s hard to tell for sure if the ratio of mask-wearing foreigners is that different from that of mask-wearing Japanese nationals. Foreigners in general are easier to spot in busy downtown foot traffic. Chances are that you might remember the one foreigner without a mask, but miss the Japanese national without one. In an article by Jason Y. Ng in the Hong Kong Free Press (source), viewpoints on the culture of mask-wearing from a variety of expats living in Hong Kong are shared.
As one might have guessed, the answer to the question “Do foreigners living in Japan wear masks?” is slightly more complicated than it seems. Whether you choose to or not to wear a mask, we hope that you stay safe and healthy during these stressful times.
Lead photo: iStock stock photography