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Mask Yourself from the Flu

Every culture has its own remedies for everything from mosquito bites to zits to the common cold. “Culture” could mean the country you live in, your region, or even your family. Regardless, there’s probably a little something you do that might seem bizarre to someone else.

Japan has a reputation for weirdness that may or not have been fairly earned. An image of this “weirdness” was spread around the globe following the SARS scare from 2002-2003. The image was of Japanese people wearing what western individuals and media deemed unsettling: surgical masks.

A group of Japanese people wearing surgical masks.
(Photo via


For the average western-country dweller, surgical masks are worn almost exclusively in medical contexts. If a person is wearing a surgical mask, they are either a doctor or a sick patient. There’s not much else the western brain immediately tends to think when they see these masks (unless you subscribe to a specific sort of fetishism, I suppose). So, it’s a little weird for some people from other countries to see so many people all wearing a mask in this fashion.

This is a preventative measure. While yes, masks are used to prevent the spread of germs from a sick person to another, the Japanese also use masks to prevent themselves from coming into contact with the germs in the first place. In the past, special masks were even designed using ostrich antibodies because a researcher discovered that ostriches have stronger immune systems than other birds. Masks are taken seriously here.

Now that it’s winter, of course, it’s also flu and cold season. The word “epidemic” is being thrown around with regard to this year’s flu numbers. Additionally, new forms of avian flu have been detected in northern Japan. Nobody wants to get sick. But we also can’t stay home. So, what do we do? We put face masks on.

Until recently, I thought this was a bit of a joke. A face mask? Really? I was especially bothered by the way some sick people (salarymen in particular) seemed to feel that because they were wearing the mask it was acceptable to cough and splutter at will. I find myself holding my breath in train cars at times when a person next to me is coughing and hacking without covering their face. Some people seem to think their face mask will take care of disease control altogether.

But I learned something recently. Something I had to look up. The owners of my school have been giving each person who comes in the door a hand wipe to help reduce the spread of germs. They’ve also been running a humidifier, and many students show up in face masks. The most surprising information I heard regarding these practices was that humid air actually helps reduce the spread of the germs.

“HA! SILLY JAPANESE WITH YOUR SILLY IDEAS!” was my first reaction.

I did a little research, and what I found surprised me. Some evidence suggests that moist air may actually make existence very difficult for the flu. In fact, increased outbreaks of the flu (especially in less humid climates) may be due to how easy it is for the germs to travel through the dry air. However, not all scientists are on board with this theory.

So, how does this relate to masks? By breathing into a mask (especially breathing through the mouth), you’re actually warming the air and adding humidity to it. You’re not pulling dry air into your lungs; it’s much less harsh, and it may possibly be helping to eliminate any influenza germs. Or not. You decide. I tend to think masks have an entertaining element about them – I can breathe with my mouth open without appearing ridiculous, I can smile to myself on the train when I’m watching something funny on my iPod, and I even come with the added bonus of looking somewhat like a space alien when I wear one.

Wearing a Surgical Mask(Exhibit A responds with terror when exposed to loud sounds or cockroaches.)


I don’t wear a mask to protect myself from germs. If I am feeling extraordinarily sick, I will wear a mask in an effort not to infect my coworkers and my students. I do, however, wear a scarf that I regularly pull up above my mouth. I tend to breathe through it when I’m out and about in the winter just because the air is cold and breathing through the scarf allows me to heat the air before I pull it into my lungs, which feels much more pleasant. Whether or not my scarf is saving me I may never know.

The thing I find the most entertaining about all of this, however, is knowing for certain now that I live in a nation of mouthbreathers.


  1. Sin Sin February 1, 2012

    I read in a book (“A Geek in Japan” – Héctor García) that a lot of Japanese women are reluctant to show their open mouths, and so some cover their mouths (and sometimes whole faces) when laughing or even smiling. Apparently this is because girls who had become women were made to dye their teeth black in the Edo period, and only married women soon after.

    Could the face mask also double as a veil to cover the open-mouth breathing? Just a theory.

    • Alisha Alisha February 2, 2012

      Yeah, the mouth covering thing totally happens, though usually women just use their hands to cover their mouths. I hadn’t heard about it being because of teeth blackening – that may have been the reason back in the Edo period.

      I’d guess that now it might have something to do with dentistry-related issues girls/women have.

      Yes, the face mask totally lets you mouth-breath. It’s great for when you’re sick and your nose is stuffed up. I wear them when I’m sick, breathe through my mouth and nobody can tell. It’s great.

  2. Coco Coco February 8, 2012

    Several years ago, when there were some cases of avian flu reported in the US, I saw this female guest on a talk show, the View (ABC). She said she saw a passenger wearing a face mask on the flight she took, she was literally furious that someone was wearing a mask. As a Japanese living in the US, I knew that Americans don’t wear masks unless required on the job, but it just made me wonder why a simple mask made her so angry. Why do you think that is?

    • Alisha Alisha February 8, 2012

      Honestly, I’m not sure. My best guess is that the woman believed the person wearing the mask might have been seriously ill, and was thus putting all other people on the flight in danger of exposure to her illness (which, of course, was not the case).

  3. Inspirational Quotes Inspirational Quotes April 18, 2012

    Influenza and Face Masks in Japan | Arisha In Tokyo – A Life in Tokyo Blog I was suggested this web site by my cousin. I am not sure whether this post is written by him as no one else know such detailed about my trouble. You are incredible! Thanks! your article about Influenza and Face Masks in Japan | Arisha In Tokyo – A Life in Tokyo BlogBest Regards Cassetta

  4. stop runny nose stop runny nose June 11, 2012

    I wear a sanitation mask during spring as I am allergic to the pollen. That is about it. During the swine flu scare, I did not even bother.

    • SunnyTheBunny SunnyTheBunny December 1, 2014

      Masks are not totally unacceptable where I live. Several pharmacies in my area sell boxes of them. At doctors’ offices, the receptionist keeps several boxes of the masks on her desk and will give you one if you ask her. I have also personally seen quite a few people wearing the masks in public.

      • SaiceTheMan SaiceTheMan April 17, 2015

        Why don’t Americans wear masks like the Japanese? The masks do help keep out germs immensely. And according to me, not getting sick is priceless.

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