Friday 1 March 2019

A Mask Wearing Culture: Hay Fever Fashion

In England I never wore a mask, never really saw others wearing masks, and didn't notice any masks on sale. Japan is very different: masks are everywhere from commuters on the Yamanote Line to hikers in the countryside, from students to the elderly. There are multiple reasons Japanese wear masks. Among young women, it is often a sign that they got up too late to apply make-up! However, in general the reasons often depend on the season. 

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During winter they are used to prevent catching a cold or the flu or to stop it spreading to others if you have been unlucky to catch one. Coughing or sneezing on a crowded commuter train without a mask will result in a quick social death. The air is also very dry at this time of year so wearing a mask is a good way to prevent a sore throat (especially so if you keep the heater on while you sleep at night). In the spring, Asian dust or yellow sand (kōsa =黄砂) carrying pollutants and particulates like PM 2.5 blows over from China and other countries (Kyushu is especially affected), so masks are used to filter this out. At this time of the year, though, probably the most common reason for wearing a mask is hay fever (known as kafunshō=花粉症).

As the cold snap switched abruptly into unseasonably warm weather, the start of hay fever season was officially announced on February 18th (when cedar pollen started to fully diffuse into the air). The media has been full of dire warnings that this year will be especially miserable for the one in four Japanese who suffer from hay fever, with the amount of cedar pollen in the air even in Tokyo forecast to be as much as four times higher than last year. Part of the reason cedar (sugi=杉) pollen is such a problem can be traced back to after World War II which saw mass planting of the fast-growing trees to aid the post-war construction boom. Cedar pollen is expected to continue until mid-March in eastern and western Japan and that is followed by hinoki or Japanese cypress pollen: the trees produce huge amounts of of tiny, super-light pollen grains which when inhaled can cause severe allergic reactions. While cedar and cypress are the main culprits, as the chart below shows the pollen (kafun=花粉)calendar runs through to October and includes multiple kinds of allergens, even including rice plants (ine =稲). See here for a more detailed regional calendar with pictures.
Comparing with the UK, we can see a similar patten with tree pollen in the spring (red in the chart), and grass and weed from summer to autumn (green in the chart). The main culprit in the UK though is grass which peaks in June: cedar and cypress are no-where to be found.

Magazines and TV have been full of cleaning tips for reducing pollen in the home: wipe rather than vacuum floors, dry futons and clothes inside (or outside early in the morning), brush (harai=払い) clothes after coming home, and use air purifiers. Allergies are big business in Japan. As well as masks, products on sale include anti-pollen glasses that also claim to prevent lenses from fogging up, nose plugs, nasal sprays, and portable air purifiers small enough to be worn around the neck. But it is the masks that are the big-sellers and in recent years these have become something of a fashion item too, with different styles (black or flower-printed masks anyone?) to fruit-scented ones and even masks taped directly to the cheeks. The other day I visited a "pop-up shop" in Ometesando Hills by Pitta Mask which has been promoting masks as a fashion accessory; the shop had a section offering advice on how to coordinate masks by colour and size with your clothes!