Unmasked: The untold story behind 1,000+ train rides in Japan and face masks

If you are ever lucky enough to find yourself jam-packed like a sardine to the point of being unable to take in a deep breath on a train in Tokyo during peak rush-hour traffic, a truly fascinating sight to behold awaits you.

Inside, not only would you be privy to a homogenous landscape of salarymen sporting natty business attire and clutching shiny briefcases, and countless women all decked-out with the latest trends in corporate fashion garments and accessories, but you would also quickly be acquainted with a uniquely mesmerizing glimpse into Japanese culture: that is, a sizeable population of the train will be wearing…a face mask.

“Huh, that’s … different,” I thought the first time I observed this. Then came the frantic, but fleeting thought, “Are we in the middle of some global pandemic?”

But no. There was neither a global pandemic, nor was there even a regional epidemic at the time. To get to the bottom of what seemed like an unusual phenomenon, I spoke with a number of salesclerks at local convenience stores, where surgical masks were as available, abundant, and variegated as the bubble gum and mints.

I was bewildered.

There is a term in psychology known as “functional fixedness,” which denotes a cognitive bias that limits a person to use an object only in the way that it is traditionally used. For example, someone who cannot overcome their functional fixedness of perceiving a chair as having the sole utility of being a place to rest our tired rears would not recognize that they can repurpose that chair to be used as a stool to acquire an object that has been stored high up in a cabinet.

In many ways, Americans suffer from this cognitive bias when it comes to face masks, and by no fault of their own. After all, if there is one thing that having been born and raised in the U.S. has taught me about our social engagement and communication with each another, it is that we place an inordinate amount of value and significance on being able to see and appreciate an individual’s countenance to the inadvertent detriment of the benefits that may be conferred onto us by eclipsing the bottom half of our faces from time to time. Thus, I propose that we, as a nation, begin the initial steps towards normalizing the donning of face masks and wring from them, every possible beneficial use (including ones that we may not have considered before as a culture) so that we may truly appreciate the masterful, multi-purpose functionality of the traditional surgical mask in all of its versatile glory.

So here are ten reasons you may wish to consider wearing a face mask that came from the observations and knowledge gained from 1,000+ train rides in Japan over the course of 3 years, and the kind generosity of Japanese salesclerks who helped me clarify and enumerate this list. Hopefully, you will find a reason compelling enough for you to wear one in public even after this pandemic is over, and wearing face masks becomes entirely volitional.

1. You have social anxiety. Have you ever been in a public place and wished nobody would recognize you or, even worse, come up to you and try to start a conversation (yes, friends included)? A surgical-type mask can help with that in the same way that many people with social anxiety in the U.S. or who just prefer to be left alone in public may wear sunglasses to anonymize their identity.

2. You are concerned about your breath being offensive to others or of being offended by theirs. Perhaps you did not have time to brush your teeth this morning, or maybe you did but have since swigged lots of coffee or chowed down on some food with a pungent odor (e.g., garlic, onions) and wish to save others from your noxious peril. Alternatively, if you know you will be in close contact with people who may not have the most ambrosial of breaths, a mask can save you the trouble of having to endure the painful experience of being trapped and unable to say or do anything.

3. You want to conceal an imperfection. Do you have an embarrassing cold sore, acne, rash, bruise, laceration, or some skin condition you either cannot hide with make-up, or you want to just cover it up entirely so that you do not have to face social mortification when people notice it, or worse, have them inquire about it? With a mask, they do not ask.

4. You feel unattractive for other medical reasons. You just had some dental work done, and your cheeks are swollen, or you have a chipped tooth, or you are sporting unsightly cracked lips. A face mask can cover all those bases.

5. You feel under-groomed. You forgot to shave and look a bit scruffy and improper for whatever function you are about to attend. A mask can be a temporary fix.

6. You want to stave off acne. Are you prone to getting pimples and one to touch your face frequently with dirty, oily fingers? Masks help prevent unwanted digital contact.

7. You need to mitigate the effects of airborne irritants. Do you have asthma, allergies to dust or pollen, or a desire to avoid contaminating your lungs (e.g., from air pollution, aerosol, chemical fumes), and wish to protect your respiratory system? A mask does that.

8. You want to keep your face warm. Masks can help warm and moisturize your face with your own breath.

9. You want to look cool, mysterious, or cute. A mask can add those elements to your visage (if there are playful designs or fun patterns on it). You can even make it a part of your sartorial aesthetic (I am not kidding—this is actually a thing in Japan).

10. You want to prevent both disease contraction and disease transmission.

A mask worn in public does not have to be negative, weird, or threatening. Nor does it have to be confined to a medical use. Masks can be normalized and integrated into American culture too, as a friend and not a foe.

So the next time you look at a surgical mask, consider all the different things it can do for you.

Who knows? You might even come up with your own use for one.

Jay Wong is a medical student. He received his undergraduate degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from Yale University. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Jay Wong, and on Twitter @JayWongMedicine.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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