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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

Japan Stops Using Masks (in Theory)

Pandemic-era face mask

This Monday, March 13, was a bright day in Japan, not just from the increasingly springlike weather, but also because of a newfound facial freedom. For it was on this day that various jurisdictions across the country transitioned to a new phase in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic: “just living with it.” Although Japan’s legal framework prevented governments from forcing anyone to don a mask, residents were strongly encouraged, under threat of a harsh glare, to cover their breathing holes anytime they ventured out.


Back in the early days of the pandemic, I thought this was awesome. We didn’t know too much about COVID back then, but it seemed clear that exhaling on other people was a bad thing. Before long, half of all faces in Japan were missing—the bottom half. It was like that creepy Twilight Zone episode where one character was missing her mouth, but this time, everyone’s mouth was gone. Such constraints didn’t last long in the United States, with its strong emphasis on the individual and a penchant for political conspiracy theories. But the Japanese kept the faith of masking in public, regardless of the ups and downs of scientific investigations, regardless of the long-term impacts on young children, and regardless of begging by the Japanese government for people not to be so dependent on masks.


This week, as part of a general easing of pandemic-related warnings, Japan abandoned masks as a necessity in public. Businesses are now free to end temperature screenings and remove physical barriers. The general public can walk into most establishments mask-free. (The old recommendations remain in place for public transportation, hospitals, and retirement homes.) While it has only been a couple of days since the new standards rolled out, you can already see that people are standing their ground and refusing to remove their masks. I expect at least a year to pass before the majority of adults in Japan move about without first wrapping their faces with cloth coverings.


What are we to make of such obstinance? Some onlookers will say that the Japanese are a scientifically backward people who can’t let go of their lucky charms. Given Japan’s technological history, that interpretation is unlikely. But the refusal by the Japanese to follow the rest of the mask-disposing world is curious, and as a resident I struggled to understand the reasons. And then I watched this month’s World Baseball Classic.


All Japan has been ga-ga over this international sports event. Similar to the FIFA World Cup in the soccer world, the WBC brings the world’s greatest sluggers together to compete for baseball fame in the name of their respective nations. And Japan has not disappointed. After a successful exhibition game against the Hanshin Tigers and an easy win over the Chinese team, Japan battled the fourth-ranked South Korean team, defeating them 13-4 after being evenly matched during the first half of the game. It followed this up with victories over the Czech Republic and Australia.


While this winning streak appears to be just a great team playing great baseball, something changed between the initial warmup game and the following four official matches that sheds light on Japan’s approach to masking. In that first exhibition game against the Tigers, fans swooned over Ōtani Shōhei, Japan’s current favorite baseball son and a star player for the Los Angeles Angels. When he would approach the plate, you could barely see any spectators behind the sea of “大谷翔平” signs. My wife and I started to feel sorry for the other players who weren’t getting any love from the fans.


That all changed when the real games began. Ōtani had hit one home run after another in the practice game, but he struggled to make contact with the ball when facing both China and South Korea. Instead, Japan’s victories were a clear team effort. As Ōtani showed himself to be a mere mortal, more success came to the team overall.


This team-centric success story mirrors what is happening with masks in Japan. There are some members of the public who cower in fear of the virus, worrying that a maskless Japan is a death sentence. But from what I have observed, most Japanese don’t take masks too seriously. Sure, they wear them when riding trains or walking their dogs or picking up a few groceries. But when the workday is done, they remove their masks and gather in crowded coffee shops and alcohol-friendly izakaya, laughing it up within centimeters of each other’s faces, oblivious to the dangers of infection.


If the Japanese are willing to deal with the risks of COVID in what is likely the most transmissive environment, why do they still wear them in an uncrowded shoe store? I believe that they are engaging in a type of teamwork, just like the "Samurai Japan” baseball all-stars.


Whereas the United States puts the focus on individual rights, Japan is more community-minded. Such behavior is even enshrined in its national constitution. Article 12 of that document states, “The freedoms and rights guaranteed to the people by this Constitution shall be maintained by the constant endeavor of the people, who shall refrain from any abuse of these freedoms and rights and shall always be responsible for utilizing them for the public welfare.” In short, individual rights must be paired with a concern for others.


This plays out, literally, on the WBC baseball field. Ōtani could try to force his way into the spotlight, making the games about him and his obvious talents. But both baseball and life are complicated, and there is no expectation that he would succeed as a lone wolf. Instead, community rather than individuality is the key to victory in the Japanese mindset. At least that is how it came across in those early games. The TV announcers for the match against South Korea even made repeated statements to this effect, how it wasn’t just about Ōtani anymore. And if they felt it, you can be sure that the broader viewership did as well.


Which brings us back to masks. While there is a general understanding here in Japan that masks provide only limited protection against the coronavirus, the desire to support the team, to look out for the needs of others, to worry about how others would respond to seeing someone approach them without a mask; these are the hallmarks of Japanese masking behavior. Over time, people will reduce reliance on masks, but only as a means of furthering national teamwork.


[Image Credits: suno-138/photo-ac.com]

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