text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
One of the most stupid things circulated by the foreign media in the days following the great earthquake of 2011 was that the Japanese were so much panicked over the radiation leak from the Dai Ichi power plant in Fukushima that they started wearing surgical masks to protect themselves; it’s really worth wondering if the people reporting this piece of “news” had even seen a documentary about Japan (having visited it if only as tourists is not even a possibility) since the sight is so common especially during winter and spring that it can easily be put next to the pictures of geisha, Fuji and cherry blossoms as one of the most typical images of modern Japan.
“Modern” is a relative term though: the masks made their appearance during the Taisho period (1912-1926) first among factory workers and then by everyday people on the streets as a means of protection against the lethal Spanish flu and gained even more traction after the war, when the atmospheric pollution from the thousands of demolition and construction sites accompanying the rebuilding of the country offered merchants a very good argument for selling first more fabric, then ready-made gauze or cotton masks and later the paper masks we still see today. Things got even worse after 2000 when the kafunso (花粉症) hay fever from the sugi (杉) cryptomerias getting older and producing even more pollen became a health issue for more than 20% of Japan’s population.
Simple, flat and cotton, others made of paper with pleats for better fit, one-piece “3D” ones and occasionally colored or with various decorative patterns for small children or fashion victims, masks are everywhere and not just during the season of influenza, colds or allergies. With first and foremost concern the prevention of others from catching their sickness, Japanese of all ages have made them part of their everyday attire, benefiting on the side from the concealment they offer, although this last fact is seldom openly acknowledged. In a world were congestion has reached the point of robbing people of their vital space, this small piece of paper or fabric offers even the teensiest sense of anonymity and, by extension, of personal privacy; it sounds trivial but sanctuary is where you can get it.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit http://about.me/GrigorisMiliaresis and http://www.japanarekore.gr/