Face Masks in Asia

From the colorful streets of Harajuku to the urbanized alleyways of Gangnam, face masks are the norm. No, I am not referring to the face masks you buy in Sephora and use while watching a rom-com. I am referring to the medical face masks that in the western world are only reserved for members of the medical community. Yet in Japan and South Korea, their use is multi-faceted.

Upon my arrival to Tokyo, my first thoughts were: “this is amazing, being sick here is totally de-stigmatized because if you need to wear the mask you just use it.” Lowered bathroom sinks and elevators with accessible buttons for wheelchair users all pointed to this country being advanced in topics of inclusion, at least more advanced than the US, but I don't think that is a good benchmark...

As the days went on and the sheer amount of people wearing face masks escalated, it dawned on me that something else was going on. I asked my boyfriend’s cousin, who has lived in Osaka for over two years and he brushed my question off with a simple “it’s a fashion statement.” A quick Etsy search for the key words “designer face mask” somewhat validates his point; the top result shows a bootleg Louis Vuitton face mask going for $45.

In the train ride from Osaka to Kyoto, I start thinking: “Do you wear it when you are sick as part of a good-neighbor policy or do you put it on as a preventive measure, when you are afraid others will get you sick?” By the time we get to Seoul, I am no longer perplexed by the masks constant appearances. I ask my Korean friend and she tells me that she recently received a nation-wide email from the government encouraging their citizens to wear the masks, as the toxic air flowing east from China is dangerous. While the fear that I was so close to a country that constantly threatens to nuke its neighbor had crossed my mind several times while visiting Seoul, not once had I thought about the pollution that was filling my lungs. 

It seems like there is no one reason for using the face mask. Why do you think it is so common? Would you use it? Comment below :)


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