Nfld. & Labrador·Apocalypse Then

Think wearing masks in everyday life is a new concept? Think again

Wearing masks day in, day out may be new to most Canadians, but it's been part of everyday life in many East Asian countries for years.

During the influenza pandemic of 1918 health authorities in many parts of the world recommended masks

Mask-wearers in Mill Valley, Calif., 1918. (Raymond Coyne/Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Public Library/Public domain)

Wearing masks day in, day out might be new to most Canadians, but it's been part of everyday life in many East Asian countries for years. Where did the idea of wearing a mask to curtail the spread of disease come from, and why was the practice common in places like Japan before the COVID-19 outbreak?

During the influenza pandemic of 1918, commonly known as the Spanish Flu, health authorities in many parts of the world recommended or even required that members of the public wear masks to stem contagion. 

Scientists understood by that time that masks could go some way toward preventing the transmission of germs; masks were worn by surgeons in operating theatres and by medical staff in fever hospitals, where patients with contagious illnesses were sequestered. 

The health orders of 1918, though, were the first time the general public was encouraged to wear masks, too, in response to a disease outbreak. 

These mask mandates didn't go over well everywhere. In Alberta, where the government passed a measure requiring that masks be worn outside the home, the law was widely flouted. 

People either didn't bother wearing masks to begin with or let their masks dangle around their necks, pulling them up only if they saw a police officer. The Alberta government rescinded the mask measure just four weeks after it was enacted.

Japan began promoting mask-wearing in February 1919 for the echo waves of the flu that continued through 1920. There, mask-wearing was embraced, with up to 80 per cent of households in some prefectures adopting the use of masks.

A poster from the 1918-1920 flu pandemic in Japan shows germs infecting the air around a maskless man on a train. The text reads: 'Underestimated flu bacteria! Not wearing a mask is reckless!' (Public domain)

Why was the Japanese public so receptive to face masks when many North Americans rejected them out of hand?

In an interview with Alex Martin of the Japan Times, pharmacist and vintage mask collector Tamotsu Hirai suggested that Japanese people have more positive cultural images of mouth-coverings than North Americans do. 

He pointed out that Western superheroes, from the Lone Ranger to Batman, generally wear masks that cover their eyes but leave the mouth exposed. In Japan, on the other hand, Saturday morning cartoon heroes disguise themselves by covering their mouths.

The association between heroism and mouth-coverings in Japan goes back centuries. Samurai wore face guards as part of their armour, partly as facial protection and partly to secure their top-heavy helmets to their heads. Many of these covered the nose, mouth and chin and featured fearsome expressions to intimidate opponents.

Japanese students wear masks to prevent flu in February 1920. (Bettmann Archive/Public domain)

Ninja, the famous spies of feudal Japan, also covered their mouths and noses. They were conventionally depicted dressed all in black with a cloth tied over the lower part of the face, leaving only the eyes bare.

Traditional Japanese beliefs about purity and cleanliness laid the groundwork for face masks, too. The Shinto religion treated breath as something that could be contaminated. In shrines, worshippers were sometimes asked — and are still sometimes asked today — to cover their mouths with paper or plant leaves to keep their breath from sullying the sacred space. 

When medical face masks came along in 1919, not only did they dovetail nicely with Japanese ideas about breath and favourable attitudes toward face-coverings, they also represented modernity and the triumph of science over superstition, something many Japanese people of the time valued very highly.

Still, mask-wearing might have died out in Japan, as it did in other places where masks where worn during the 1918 pandemic, if not for a series of events that kept masks relevant throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

A menpo-style samurai face guard covered nose to chin and sometimes the neck, too. This is an Edo-period (18th-century) mask from the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum. (Tokyo Fuji Art Museum/Creative Commons)

The Great Kanto Earthquake — which occurred in 1923, just three years after the end of the Spanish flu pandemic — sparked massive fires across Tokyo, motivating people to dig their old flu masks out of storage to filter the smoke and ash lingering in the air.

After the atomic detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, masks were used as a defence against radiation, and they resumed their role in flu prevention during the 1957 Asian flu and 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemics.

It wasn't until the 1980s, though, that masks truly came into their own in Japan — not to stave off infection, but as a remedy for hay fever.

Following the Second World War, Japanese cedar was used to restore broad swaths of forest that had been decimated in the war effort. Although the fast-growing tree seemed ideal for reforestation, it turned out to be a serious allergen. Today, around 41 per cent of Japanese adults experience hay fever, compared with 11 per cent of Canadians

Instead of treating these allergies with medication, as we tend to do in Canada, Japanese doctors preferred prevention, recommending masks as a way for sufferers to avoid inhaling pollen.

In art, ninja were traditionally pictured dressed all in black with a covering tied over the lower half of the face. (Woodblock print by Hokusai, 1817/Public domain)

The SARS epidemic in 2002 and swine flu pandemic in 2009 clinched the mask's status as a Japanese wardrobe staple. 

Now, Japanese people don masks to filter a variety of airborne particles, from viruses, to pollen, to smog. They also turn to masks to block the sun when they don't want to tan and as coverups when they aren't wearing makeup.

North American reporting often credits the popularity of mask-wearing in Japan to a culture of collectivism, and it's true that masks are worn partly out of a sense of social responsibility. If someone's feeling unwell, they might wear a mask to help protect the people around them.

But mask-wearing in Japan also has an individualist appeal: masks allow people to take responsibility for their own health. Mask-wearers are seen not just as considerate but as people who look after themselves

Contrary to stereotypes, mask-wearing became firmly rooted in Japanese society not due to widespread compliance but as a result of historical circumstances that made masks attractive and practical, symbols of both courtesy and self-sufficiency.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ainsley Hawthorn

Freelance contributor

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

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