It’s one of the differences between Asian (at least East Asian) cultures and the west—wearing masks in public. When in Europe or the United States, going out in a surgical mask might get you a few stares, at best, or, in this time of the coronavirus outbreak, you may become a target of some unwanted negative attention
But the truth is, Asians, especially the Japanese, have been wearing masks in public since the beginning of the 20th century, and it does not look like this will end any time soon.
The history of wearing masks in Asia
Masks first became common as early as 1918, when a deadly influenza strain went around the globe, killing at least as many as one in 10 people. People everywhere, including Japan, started covering their faces out of a need to protect themselves.
A few years later, in 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Japan, which resulted in a fire that destroyed over half a million homes and filled the air with smoke and ash for weeks, leading to poor air quality for months. This is when the citizens of Tokyo and Yokohama began wearing masks, and when a flu pandemic in 1934 spread across the world, face masks began to become worn regularly, especially during the winter months.
The Japanese, however, strove to keep others from catching their germs as much as they endeavoured to keep themselves safe—using these masks, of course.
In the decades that followed, as Japan became increasingly industrialized, growing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere led to higher levels of pollen-rich Japanese cedar, which in turn led to wearing masks as a year-long habit, no longer only in the winter months.
Pollution in China, South Korea and Thailand, for the same reasons, saw a rise in popularity of wearing masks in these countries as well.
By 2014, the Japanese alone were buying over S$350 million worth of surgical masks yearly.
And then there’s Qi
The countries where the use of face masks is prevalent also have this in common, the influence of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Taoism, where breath is perceived as key to good health.
According to board certified practitioner of acupuncture and herbal medicine Michelle Ching, “‘Qi’ is a central concept in Chinese cosmology—and thereby physiology—generally having to do with energy and vapor. Qi has numerous meanings in Chinese including ‘air’ [kong qi], ‘atmosphere’ [qi fen], ‘odor’ [qi wei], which is perhaps another reason masks are so necessary in China!, ‘strength’ [li qi] and ‘pathogen’ [xie qi]. When bodily qi is depleted, or its movement deranged, pain and disease develop. So breathing is critical in order to maintain good qi in the body.”
Masks as a social statement
Younger mask-wearers may have different reasons for wearing masks today, however. Some, especially women choose to use them, to put a social distance between them and others. When they are in their masks and their earphones are in, this is a signal that they are shut off from social interaction.
Some wear them to show they do not wish to engage in social niceties, such as smiling or exchanging greetings, or maybe even simply maintaining eye contact, as though the mask were a wall that separates them from the rest of the world.
Other sources say that women wear them for convenience. On the days when they’re in too much of a hurry to put on makeup, on goes the mask.
Whatever reason one may have for wearing masks, we Asians have gotten used to them and consider them part of our everyday life. Everyone else just has to get used to it as well. —/TISG
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