No need to be ashamed of your surgical mask: in Japan, these babies have multi-purpose acceptance.

First-time tourists flying into Japan could well be faced with a terrifying sight: a gleaming, antiseptic airport terminal full of travellers softly shushing across immaculate floors, athousand silent mouths covered by those hospital masks you’re used to seeing only on rare occasions, either cheerfully strapped to your dentist’s chit-chatty face or on the well-defined jaws of Grey’s Anatomy doctors. Certainly not on throngs of ordinary folks. But don’t worry, it’s not the zombie apocalypse—it’s just culture shock.

The everyday donning of surgical masks has a long history (it first took off during a 1918 pandemic of Spanish influenza), and over its lifespan has evolved to encompass a surprising number of uses. The most important use is also the most intuitive: the Japanese wear masks when they’re sick to avoid transmitting germs to others. Western cultures could learn a thing or two here, because the old cough-into-your-elbow trick doesn’t keep your snot and saliva from spraying unsuspecting bystanders. With a facemask, the Japanese keep contagious germs to themselves, which isn’t surprising, given that social and relational consideration is a cornerstone of contemporary society. And the widespread use of masks during flu season means that it’s also totally appropriate to wear one as a preventative measure.

But read on, brave pioneer, because there is so much more to explore in the vast frontier of surgical masks. Not only do they help stop the spread of cold-and-flu diseases, these masks also keep you from freezing your face off during your winter commute. And as cold and flu season gives way to spring fever, the mask is a common transitional wardrobe piece, keeping citizens a little safer from allergy-triggering pollen. Specially constructed masks made for hay fever began popping up about two decades ago and have contributed to the on-your-face trend. You can now buy masks in a variety of fashionable colours and designs, and thanks to production innovations they stand out slightly from your face, leaving your nostrils clear and your makeup flawless.

Not that you have to wear makeup at all, because there’s also a craze for the date masuku, or the “just for show” mask, which is used to treat all kinds of mental rather than physical ailments. Like a psychological blanket for your face, masks are being used more and more for reasons that have nothing to do with communicable disease or environmental hazards. Need to run errands but don’t want to put on makeup? Meeting an obnoxious coworker and want to avoid getting caught in hour-long small talk? Want to escape into your own little bubble while packed, sardine-like, into a rush-hour train? Not to worry, because from beauty enhancer to pop-up privacy chamber, masks have got you covered.

Learn the mask-wearing DOs and DON’Ts


There are many ways to join in on Japan’s masked party. Just be sure to save face by following these three simple rules.


DO get your secret identity on

Have a YouTube-worthy talent but shy about making it public? Hide your face, but not your entertaining chops!


DON’T borrow; buy your own

Even if it’s “just for show,” you never know what germs might be lurking beneath a mask with mileage.


DO show off your fashion sense

Try a colourful mask—you can take your pick of everything from hot pink polka dots to a kawaii panda face.

Illustrations by Chieko Watanabe