Things I Love About Japan: Surgical Masks

This week’s guest post comes from Lisa, a personal friend and the mind behind ichigoichielove (which is great, by the way). She writes: 

There are many things I do in Japan that I wouldn’t do elsewhere (at least not without feeling like a total freak)—and one of those is wearing a surgical mask in public. I often get asked why Japanese people wear them, as in most Western countries wearing a mask like that either means you’re a surgeon about to operate, a dentist, or you’re highly infectious and anyone who comes within a meter of you will contract whatever it is you have, and will die.

I jest, mostly. Ahem.

Anyway, personally I find them very useful for a number of reasons, and have compiled them here:

  1. No make up? No problem!

The number one reason I wear a mask is to cover my face, usually if I can’t be bothered to wear make up.

Whether it’s just because I’m going on a quick errand and can’t be bothered, or I overslept in the morning and don’t want to risk being late, it’s handy because I don’t have to worry about looking pale and pasty, or if I have a zit!

(I do often brush on some mascara and maybe eye shadow if I feel I want to look more presentable though.)

Mask on, hangover in full force. But you can’t see it!

Mask on, hangover in full force. But you can’t see it!

  1. Anonymity (or at least the illusion of it!)

Since the mask covers my face, I’m at least not instantly recognizable. Or at least I feel that way.

My blonde hair often gives me away, but wearing a hat can fix that. Sometimes if I’m just on an errand I don’t want to have to stop and talk to everyone I know, it lets me slip by without being noticed—at least not in time to catch me!

I never recognize friends wearing masks—at least not at first sight, so I pretend it works for me too. Extra bonus for some people who dress up: the possibility of looking like a celebrity trying to hide from the crowds!

Wearing a mask while doing embarrassing things like this would probably be a good idea…

Wearing a mask while doing embarrassing things like this would probably be a good idea…

  1. Sense of Distance

I don’t know about anyone else, but I feel that I don’t look as approachable when I’m wearing a mask and I’m more free to do as I please without having to worry about people talking to me.

It’s similar to the anonymity point above, but a little bit different. This one is more about not having to deal with superfluous contact/conversation with random people when I’m perhaps not in the best mood.

I often take my mask off when I do talk to people (unless I’m actually sick!) because I feel strange if I’m not showing my face. Weird? Probably!

Another example of a good time to wear a mask…

Another example of a good time to wear a mask…

  1. Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!

Especially in summer and winter when the air con and heaters are on full blast, my skin, nostrils and throat get really dry.

One way to prevent that is by wearing a mask! A couple of my friends wear masks while sleeping for the same reason, but that feels a little bit uncomfortable for me. I do, however, always wear a mask when I’m traveling—especially on long flights—and have found it to be really helpful in preventing my throat from getting super dry in the air cabin.

Can you see where I’m going with this yet?

Can you see where I’m going with this yet?

  1. Portable Face Heater

In winter, it helps keep my face warm.

Scarves slide down and can get too warm at the back of my neck, which irritates me. Or they’re scratchy and annoying. A mask helps shield against wind, and also stays warm because of your exhales. Most importantly it keeps your nose warm! I haven’t found anything else that works as well.

Two reasons to wear a mask: no make up and again, anonymity would have been nice

Two reasons to wear a mask: no make up and again, anonymity would have been nice

  1. Actual Protection

I know that many expats are cynical about surgical masks proving any real protection against onslaughts of pollen and viruses, but I think they’re helpful.

Even if it’s only when someone sneezes or coughs without covering their mouth, it’s comforting to have a layer (or two if they’re wearing one as well) of something between you and the bacteria they’re sending out towards you.

Eww. Also, I have really bad hay fever in the spring, and it does help—by limiting the amount of pollen I’m breathing in, I don’t feel as bad, and I don’t have to take strong medication for it.

 It’s not like I can walk around like this, now is it?

It’s not like I can walk around like this, now is it?

  1. Everyone else is doing it

I’m not going to say I bow down to peer pressure on this, but at least I don’t look like a random weirdo wearing a surgical mask—because a lot of other people are wearing them too, sometimes for the same reasons I’ve listed above.


I know this list is a little bit quirky, and surgical masks aren’t for everyone, but it’s a little insight into why I (and why lots of Japanese people) wear them.

How about you, have you ever worn one? Would you ever wear one?


bio_photo1  lisa wallin guest post things i love about japan surgical masksLisa, also known as Ri, is a globetrotting freelance writer with a passion for music, reading and puppies. Currently living in Tokyo with her Japanese husband, who adds his two yen to their mutually run blog, Ichigoichielove—his posts are usually about ramen.

She also works on the trickrock webzine, featuring Japanese alternative bands.


About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

29 Comments on Things I Love About Japan: Surgical Masks

  1. Hey Ri aka Lisa! :D I had the same reaction as Constance, except I discovered your not secret secret hitting reply on one of your email notices. Is that Ri as in Ri-sa?? I had a good laugh with your post because 1) the tone sounded like I wrote it, 2) those pics look like something I would do, and 3) it’s funny! :D And congrats on now being more famous! I still have guest posts for Grace-sama in my head. ;D

    • Hi theeere! Nice to chat with you here as well, haha! XD It is indeed Ri/Risa/Lisa! My name often gets misspelled here, so I’ve learned to own it, haha! ^^
      Thank yooooou! Ooh! I hope you write them down and send them through, would love to read them! ^^)b

      • :D I know what you mean. You can imagine that Hilary is quite the mouthful. Yes! I’ve been working on one piece for months and it’s driving me nuts. I signed up for another WP workshop on writing long pieces and I’m hoping to get some help to finally finish it.

        • You are the workshop pro! I’m going to have to get myself signed up for the next round of these, because it sounds like there are so many interesting ones! :)

          • Ha! It gets addictive. New connections, new opportunities and a good dose of learning. To be truthful though, I’m not going to bother much with the latest one. I can’t remember if I mentioned that H and I are doing future planning this month and I can’t do both. :D Oh… a new series is starting up in January. and under Blogging U

          • Will definitely look it up! Once I go home for the holidays I’ll have some time to look around. ^^

          • Sounds good! Have a great time in France!

  2. Wearing surgical masks in public is a relatively common thing in East/Southeast Asia. I’ve been to Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Singapore and have seen people wore them.

  3. When I see those masks I think of illness, but I see myself (healthy) as the threat to that poor fellow wearing the mask (too weak to defend themselves bare-faced)

  4. All good points! Personally, though, I could never wear them. I tried once when I was sick, and I couldn’t stand it! It made me itchy, and I felt like I was suffocating on my own carbon dioxide. Also, the hot air on my rubbed-raw nose made it burn. I had to take it off almost right away. Now that I’m working in Japan, I’m really worried about the first time I get sick and still have to go to work. They’re going to expect me to wear a mask, and there’s no way I can do that… :/

    • True, a lot of people find it really uncomfortable to wear. If they ask you to wear one to work though, you can try a couple of different things: buy a larger size so it doesn’t feel so tightーyou don’t have to worry about the effectiveness, as sometimes it’s just “showing” you’re doing your part that matters. Or, pull it down a bit and just cover your mouth. That may be the most comfortable option. :)
      Otherwise you can get a washable one made from cloth (like I have in the first photo), and they’ll be able to adjust the size to fit your needs. (It may be less itchy and uncomfortable.)
      I hope it works out!

  5. I wear them for the exact same reasons!! They are great wearing if you are just going to the supermarket and you are really hungover, tired, don’t want to bother putting on makeup. The mask really does cover most of your face so no one will notice. I also wear it during the spring because I also get a really bad hay-fever just like Lisa, and it works! Besides, some of the masks are really cute :D

    • Yay, glad I’m not the only one! (Sometimes I wonder, haha!) Yeah I’ve seen some really cute designs lately, but am holding off buying the nice ones until I really need them. Thank you for your kind comment! <3

  6. Great post! And the pictures are awesome, haha.

    I am not a big fan of masks even though maybe I should be wearing them against the awful Chinese pollution (not sure if they can do anything, but…). However I can’t stand the fogging on my glasses and I don’t like breathing hot air… I feel like I lack oxygen!

    • Thank yoooou! :D
      Yeah, they really need to come up with better ones for when you wear glasses… And I understand about the feeling of lack of oxygen! I eventually got used to it, but some of my friends still find it uncomfortable.

  7. I love them, too!
    After some years in Japan I suddenly got allergic to the pollen of cedar trees (like most of the Japanese people, too) and thus I HAVE to wear a mask in spring.
    But I also wear them when I’m travelling in crowded trains to protect myself from all bacteria. It’s great in airplanes because your nose and throat won’t dry out.

    And yes, I admit it, I also sometimes wear them when I’m too lazy to put on make-up or if I have a pimple. ;)

    • Woo, a kindred spirit! :D
      Yeah, I was hit by cedar pollen allergy this spring for the first time. :( I thought I had lucked out and managed to avoid it for so long that it would always be so, but…no. :/

  8. Great post! I have trouble with the fogging, but during allergy season, I’d rather deal with some blindness than with the constant sneezing, itching, general malaise. Good idea for flights—hadn’t thought of that. Beats sticking Vaseline up my nose, I guess. ;)

    • Thank you! Yes, the fogging. You would think there’d be a better version by now for when you wear glasses. But agreed it beats being itchy! I must admit I’ve never considered putting Vaseline up my nose, but if I’m ever maskless, that seems like a good idea! :D

  9. Interesting points… I am not the biggest fan but that’s because I wear glasses and they fog up whenever I use a mask >.<

    • Vix!! Yes, true! That is a nuisance. Even the ones that claim they don’t fog, do! I usually go it half blind or use contacts. Having said that, I never seem to have an issue with sunglasses. Maybe because the lens is much bigger?

  10. I remember that I read once an article where it was stated that a kitchen rag around your face is actually providing more protection than these masks :)
    When I was still working at the airport it was pretty easy to recognize japanese tourists, about 90% of them were wearing the masks and few were actually pretty rude when they had to take of the masks for the passport control!
    But there is one good thing I see use for these masks as they could help me not to shave every single day for work :p

    • Haha, that may be true! (Maybe they’ll start doing a mini kitchen rag version??)
      Oh wow, that’s interesting! I always take my mask off as soon as we’ve landed (usually Frankfurt airport, which has some seriously scary pass control dudes) because I feel weird not showing my face. I feel like they will think I’m a suspicious person hiding something… ^^; Not the best for smooth travel!
      Haha, that’s definitely a good reason for guys, never thought of that one. :D

  11. Thank you so much for featuring my post! Even though I knew it was coming, it feels really surreal to find my writing on Texan in Tokyo. XD Thank you again! <3

  12. OMG, I had no idea that your name is actually Lisa!! :)

    I love the one ‘No make-up, no problem’ – that is so true. I know many people in Taiwan wear one when driving a scooter. It reduces the amount of fumes one inhales. Also, with a mask and a big pair of sunglasses, it is the perfect combination for protection from the sun. And most people in Taiwan wear them when they are sick so it also protects other people from getting sick! As for me, I never wear one!

    Great post, ‘Lisa!!’

    • Haha yes! It’s not really a secret, but I was dubbed “Ri” at some point my first time in Japan and it kind of stuck. ^^ Oh, wearing a mask while driving a scooter makes sense! (I’m more worried about my face getting cold while riding, hehe.) :D

      Thank you! <3

  13. Hi, guest-post amazing woman!

    I seldom wear the masks, but have them for if I do need them. They are indeed good for fielding pollen. I remember after the nuclear disaster news reports from the U.S.A. saying Japanese were wearing the masks in fear of radiation contamination. While that may have been true in some cases, we all knew that there really weren’t more people wearing the masks than usual.

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