Japanese Face Masks

You may recall seeing in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, scores of surgical face-mask-wearing passersby navigating their ways through the dense futuristic metropolis that was a cross between Tokyo and LA. It always struck me odd yet somewhat comforting that in the future average people would protect themselves and others from the ravages of germs and inevitability of disease in such a way. But living in New York City, where people have a tendency to sneeze without even covering their mouths, I figured the mass employ of surgical face masks in the streets and on public transportation was simply a utopian fantasy. So I was totally surprised to find on my first trip to Tokyo that not only is it the custom to wear such masks everywhere, its big business too, with a nod to graphic design.

I have the proclivity for obsession and I quickly became obsessed with finding where and how the Tokyo natives obtained their masks and why, in fact, they wore them at the expense, I thought, of looking quite eerie. I soon learned that what’s eerie to some is decidedly natural for many. According to my calculations one out of every five people from all social strata, age groups, and genders wore them in virtually every public circumstance. I found a logical preponderance on the streets, especially in the crowded Shimbuya and Ginza districts, and on the over-stuffed mass transit trains and buses, but also in fine hotels and restaurants (of course while eating they were placed awkwardly under the chin and looked like drool cups). I even saw one gentleman comically albeit seriously smoking a cigarette through one.

Although some people wore the masks because they had colds or were afraid of catching them (and contagion from bird flu was a real fear), the majority of wearers are actually allergic to the cedar pollen that had become so annoyingly common since the end of World War II. Massive deforestation during and after the war was compensated for by thousands of cedar plantings, which unbeknownst to the agrarians at the time, gave off potent pollen on a par with ragweed in the United States. Apparently, the surgical masks, which cover nose and mouth, considerably reduce the intake of the allergens. What’s more, since blowing one’s nose in public is considered bad form (I learned from experience), any reduction of sneezing is as much a question of manners as hygiene. (Interesting though, tissue packages with advertising for everything from girly shows to currency exchange, is one of the most common advertising give-a-ways on the street.)

But back to obsessions: For the few days I was working in Tokyo I made it my mission to buy as many face mask packages as I could find.  I found them in the numerous 7-Eleven and Lawsons convenience stores on virtually every street corner, hanging next to the “white business shirts” and near the white umbrellas (everything is so uniform). The masks routinely came in silvery mylar packages, usually with a sky blue tinge overall, but also in pink (for the ladies). One was labeled “High Tech Breath Moistener” and was recommended for flying (not a bad idea), another one was promoted as being usable for seven days (though that would give me pause). A few were designed especially for sleeping children, and some, with various layers and baffles, were more technically complex than others. On the back of each package were detailed diagrams on how to use the masks, and also how germs – usually presented as little balls of florescent color – were blocked from entering the breathing passages. The typography is rather clunky in the commercial Japanese style, but entirely appropriate for the mass nature of the product. What I liked most, however, was how soft and comforting the packages felt. Despite or because of the smooth foil/mylar wrapping you could sense the soothing essence of the product inside. What was also intriguing is the number of different brands. In my brief shopping spree I found ten, each with different hygienic attributes, I’m sure there are more.

When I returned to New York, I visited my local surgical supply store to see whether anything comparable was sold here. The counter person did show me the surgical masks, but they were in drab medicinal packages (near the rubber gloves) designed not for the general public but healthcare professionals. I doubt, of course, that face masks will ever be as big here as that other Japanese import, transistor radios. Americans may like protective gear, but covering one’s face with a mask has gloomy and sinister connotations (what’s more Homeland Security would probably ban it). But if there were ever an opportunity, I’d be interested to see how differently we’d design the packages and the masks too. And I wonder what we’d call them – “Face Off,” “GermMasque,” “CoffProof?”

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