Why do so many Japanese people wear masks? The question became stuck in my mind almost as soon as I arrived in Tokyo late last month. Everywhere I went, on the streets and in trains, nearly half of the people around me were wearing surgical masks.
I already knew part of the answer: people wear masks when they are sick. That’s the case for many people in Hong Kong, and even in Vancouver and Toronto, especially after the SARS outbreak of 2003. But that didn’t seem to explain why such a huge percentage of people in Tokyo wore masks. Was half the population really suffering from colds? It seemed unlikely. Did people think that the masks could filter out radiation, which everyone worried would float down from Fukushima? That seemed unlikelier still.
My answer finally came when I met a friend of a friend, Shintaro, on a brilliant Saturday afternoon in Shibuya. He was wearing a mask that he had pulled under his chin. “It’s not because of radiation,” he said. “It’s because I have allergies. One-third of Japanese have the same allergy.” I asked him what exactly he was allergic to, but he only knew its Japanese name, sugi, so he pulled out his iPhone and looked up the name in English: Japanese cedar, a kind of evergreen related to the cypress.
In the decades after World War II, demand for wood soared as Japan rebuilt its cities, and more than 45,000 square kilometres of Japanese cedar were planted to provide enough building material. Unfortunately, millions of Japanese people are allergic to the tree’s pollen and allergy rates have increased dramatically in the past 30 years. Early spring is when the sugi’s pollen counts are highest, which explains why so many people were wearing masks when I was in Tokyo in late March.
You might think that the abundance of mask-wearing people in Tokyo would make the city seem especially impersonal. But strangely, by covering up most of a person’s identifiable facial features, the masks shift emphasis to the other ways they distinguish themselves, like hair and clothing. And perhaps most importantly, the masks leave exposed their most vulnerable, seductive and intelligent features: their eyes.
Tags: Behaviour, Japan, Streetlife, Tokyo, Trees