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.
(Photo via flavorsofjapan.com)
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.
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.