Where I come from, wearing a surgical mask is not a common thing to do. Quite the contrary, masks are associated with serious illness, doctors and hospitals. However, in Japan you can see people wearing face masks everywhere, if it's on the street, in a shop or right next to you in the train. Does that mean a lot of Japanese are suffering from a contagious disease? The answer is definitely NO!
The Reasons To Wear A Mask
But why then do people in Japan wear masks? I would say they want to get armed with their own shield!
The Pollen Shield
One of the many reasons why Japanese people put on masks when they go outside is allergy. About one fourth of the Japanese population suffers from the so-called kafunshō (hay fever). There are about 60 types of plants and trees that cause hay fever in Japan, but the pollen from the Japanese cedar, sugi, and Japanese cypress, hinoki, is most common. Starting in late February the battle with a runny nose and sneezing can last until the end of September.
Hay fever season is mask season. Not only do the masks have filters that block pollen from entering, but they also help hiding your runny nose from being seen by others.
The Bacteria Shield
Another reason is of course the flu. Once you catch a cold and still need to go outside, it is considered good manners to show consideration towards the others by wearing a mask. The Japanese often go to work even if they are ill, which makes the mask a necessary item for many working people. During times of influenza and flu outbreaks the mask is used as a prevention tool, too. Especially in a large city like Tokyo, with its crowded streets and trains, wearing a mask will keep you safe from the bacteria and viruses that are flying around.
The Lack of Grooming Shield
As it became a normal habit to put on a mask in public, many people have begun to use them for other purposes. I spoke to many of my Japanese friends and one of the first things they came up with wasn't actually in any way related to a runny nose. For girls, it seems that the masks make their faces look smaller, which is considered to be a cute characteristic in Japan. While some girls simply want to hide their no-makeup faces. Also, covering an unlovely blemish has never been so easy! For men it became common to wear a mask, if they forgot or had no time to shave their beard, since it is part of the business etiquette in Japan to have a clean shaven face. Others might have had a solid meal and a cigarette in the lunch break and don't want the boss and customers to notice the smell.
The Personal Shield
For the young people who are struggling with social awkwardness and shyness, hiding their faces in public by wearing a mask can sometimes help gaining some private space or being left alone.
The Frost Shield
Winter in Japan can be really cold and the air gets very dry. Therefore a mask functions as a natural face heater in the freezing cold. Your own breath will keep your nose and cheeks warm and moisturized, which brings us to this not less important reason of wearing a mask: warmth.
Different Types of Masks On Sale
The most worn type is the plain white medical mask. It can be purchased anywhere in Japan at convenience stores, supermarkets and drugstores. They usually come in a pack of seven to ten pieces of disposable masks for a price of 200 - 400 yen. Some of the masks are specially made to prevent glasses from fogging up, while some are mint or flower-scented. But they also come in different sizes, as well as colors and designs, like this black ninja-style mask, with an optional charcoal filter, or the fashionable leopard print mask.
The Mask as a Fashion Item
It wouldn't be Japan, if someone wouldn't come up with the idea of turning practical things into something cute! One of these people is gonoturn mask designer Junko Suzuki. "In the age of SNS, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and selfies, wherever you look, I wanted to create a cuteness that doesn't need words to be expressed", she told me when I visited her in one of the shops that sell gonoturn masks. And what she created can actually be described as kawaii at first sight. Have a look!
The gonoturn masks range goes from animal masks, such as little bears, pigs, cats, dogs, to famous character masks such as Hello Kitty, Chibi Maruko-chan, the frog Kerokerokeroppi, the Line characters Brown and Cony (*1), prints from the anime "Evangelion" or inspired by famous Japanese wrestling teams.
*1 ...Line is a popular Japanese messenger application.
The most popular and most sold one is this mask inspired by one of the best-selling manga in the world: Doraemon.
Of course I tried them myself! Never miss a chance to look as cute as possible. I went for a cat mask!
gonoturn – Cute is Justice
The fashionable gonoturn masks can be purchased in eight different VANQUISH shops around Japan. For those who are interested in these cute fluffy masks and happen to be in Tokyo, there are three places to choose from. These are the VANQUISH stores in Shibuya 109 MEN's Store, one in the PARCO Shopping Mall in Ikebukuro and in Lumine Est in Shinjuku.
Some of the gonoturn items are also available in Village Vanguard stores. They make a very special and unique Japanese souvenir, which is why they are so often bought by international visitors. The Japanese wear them mostly for their cuteness, but also to complement Halloween costumes. Even Japanese idols love to take cute selfies with them on. On the other hand, some people use them for snowboarding, since the fluffy fabric warms up one's face and feels soft at the same time.
Which One To Choose?
Don't know which one to take? gonoturn has an easy and funny solution to that.
In the VANQUISH store in Shibuya 109 MEN's, where the gonoturn masks are on sale, you can find this special machine.
This is a selfie camera with a screen that allows you to choose one of the items, projecting it automatically on your face, in order for you to see how it would suit you. In other words, it is a virtual try-on! When you found a mask you like, you can take a picture with it and, if you want, it will be uploaded to the gonoturn Facebook page, from which you can later download it.
gonoturn New Shop Opening on September 1st
gonoturn will open their very own shop with all their items on September 1st in Shibuya 109 on the second floor. The shop will open for a limited time period only, planned for now until February 2017. If you want to go check out the gonoturn items, be quick! For everyone who won't be able to visit the gonoturn shop, no worries! Their items are still available at VANQUISH stores or on their online shop. There will be upcoming new colorful designs of the masks, as well as more masks in the style of next year’s animal zodiac sign, the Rooster.
If you are intrigued by the culture of wearing masks in Japan, how about trying them yourself? Either as protection against flu or bacteria, or as a fashion item, you might really enjoy wearing a mask.