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Japan embraces its long history with masks

  • POOL / ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Abe removes his face mask in Tokyo before announcing in May an extension of the nation’s state of emergency.

    POOL / ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Abe removes his face mask in Tokyo before announcing in May an extension of the nation’s state of emergency.

  • POOL / ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                A large crowd of commuters wearing masks walks through Shinagawa Station in Tokyo. The practice of mask-wearing for health reasons for the Japanese goes back over a hundred years to the Meiji era.

    POOL / ASSOCIATED PRESS

    A large crowd of commuters wearing masks walks through Shinagawa Station in Tokyo. The practice of mask-wearing for health reasons for the Japanese goes back over a hundred years to the Meiji era.

TOKYO >> In Japan, the nation’s affinity for face masks can be traced back centuries, and it’s a custom that can be credited with keeping some control over the rate of COVID-19 deaths. Compare Japan’s situation with that of the U.S., where mask-wearing has become a politically charged issue.

Masks are now ever present in Japan and have even been adopted by the fashion and beauty industries.

There are masks that cut ultraviolet rays and prevent glasses from fogging. Some make the face look slimmer. There’s even a term for women who look good in masks — masuku bijin (masked beauty).

It’s good business, too. When coronavirus cases rose during Japan’s humid summer season, companies produced cooling and drying masks.

In March, Knit Waizu began selling reusable cloth masks in refrigerated vending machines.

“We primarily assemble sweaters but decided to make masks when sales began falling amid the pandemic,” says Katsu­yuki Goto, the company’s president.

The refrigerated masks were an instant hit. Building on that success, in May the company released a reusable cloth mask with pockets for inserting ice packs.

In June, when the Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected a requirement for face masks at President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa, hordes of customers in Japan lined up at Uniqlo shops. They were there to purchase the store’s Airism masks touting breathable fabric. The masks sold out immediately, and online shoppers crashed Uniqlo’s website.

Meanwhile, Yamashin-Filter Corp., a manufacturer of filters for construction machinery, adapted its technology to develop “nanofiber” masks using ultra-fine synthetic fibers that can block virus particles. And for nightclub hostesses, kimono maker Otozuki helped produce a face veil.

East Asian nations outside Japan adopted mask-wearing in 2003 when SARS, another variant of the coronavirus, spread from China. Crippling health care systems and leaving a trail of infection and death, the sickness illustrated the seriousness of viral respiratory diseases and revealed the importance of masks in containing outbreaks.

But in Japan, long a mask-wearing country, there were no fatalities from SARS. Why are masks universally accepted?

Understanding requires a look back in history, says Tamotsu Hirai, a collector of vintage medical paraphernalia.

In ancient times, the practice of covering the mouth with paper or sacred leaves was meant to prevent one’s “unclean” breath from defiling religious rituals, Hirai says. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the practice was adopted by the larger population.

The modern history of masks begins in the Meiji era (1868-1912), he says. The first of these, initially imported for mine, factory and construction workers, featured cloth fitted with wire mesh filters.

Mask production flourished during the Taisho era (1912-26) as the economy boomed with factories filling orders from Europe during World War I. Products were made from leather, velvet and other materials.

But a single event turned masks into an everyday product: the Spanish flu, which from 1918 to 1920 killed tens of millions of people globally. In Japan, 450,000 perished.

Saburo Shochi, a famous academic of the time, often shared his experiences of the pandemic. In an article that was published in 2008, the 90th anniversary of the outbreak, Shochi recalled losing his classmates to “the bad cold.” When the infectious nature of the virus became apparent, people began wearing masks for protection, he said.

Pandemic posters featured slogans such as “Reckless are those who don’t wear masks,” and newspapers provided instructions on how to make them at home.

It was during the early part of the Showa period (1926-89) when masks began to resemble what we use today. But during World War II, when raw materials were reserved for the military, simpler gauze masks became the norm.

“These were the bare essentials,” Hirai says, pulling out a flimsy cloth sheet from a paper package labeled “aikoku masuku” (“patriot mask”).

In the postwar years, masks evolved to their current form.

While Trump has made a point of not wearing a mask, Japanese politicians have adopted masks in a wide range of designs, often incorporating regional motifs to promote their localities.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike summed up why we need to cover our mouths.

“It’s safe,” she said, “and, most importantly, we don’t want to put others in harm’s way.”

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