In the west, the wearing of face masks has, for a long time, been broadly ridiculed. But if you travel east you’ll likely experience the exact opposite. This is because in many Asian countries it’s commonplace to wear face masks. In fact, those that don’t wear them are often stigmatized.
Many of us have found ourselves wondering, “why is it more common to wear a face mask in Asian countries?” In this article, we’re answering that question.
Why do People in Some Asian Countries Wear Masks?
If you’ve ever traveled to China or Japan you will have noticed that most people in public places are wearing face masks. This is done to protect against pollution while protecting themselves and others from any infections that might be being carried.
Although the effectiveness of face masks is widely debated, studies have shown that they do offer more protection compared to not using one at all. This has certainly impacted the use of masks.
When did People in Asia Start Wearing Masks?
Mask-wearing became more commonplace in Japan in the early 20th century during the 1918 flu pandemic that claimed upwards of 20 million people. Although the pandemic was known as the Spanish Flu it actually spread around the globe to every inhabited continent, including Asia.
Parts of Asia were devastated by the pandemic, including India which lost 5% of its entire population. As a result, many countries soon saw their citizens covering their faces in an effort to protect against the deadly airborne virus, including multiple territories in Asia.
Why did Japanese People Continue to Wear Face Masks?
Just five years later, the Great Kantō earthquake struck. The 7.9 magnitude quake lasted up to ten minutes in some areas and more than 100,000 people died. The earthquake triggered huge firestorms and even a fire tornado, and almost 600,000 homes burned down.
Even after the fires were put out, the sky was filled with smoke and ash for weeks and the air quality across Japan was terrible. This prompted a resurgence of mask-wearing, and when another flu pandemic struck Japan in 1934 there was another surge of mask-buying.
Japan’s post-World War II industrialization then caused terrible air pollution and this cemented the year-round use of face masks.
Which Asian Countries Wear Face Masks Now?
It’s not just Japanese people that choose to wear masks; you will see the same thing in many parts of Asia. And, this has become even more prevalent during the COVID-19 crisis. In Hong Kong people lined up overnight to buy face masks, and in South Korea and Singapore, the government distributed masks to citizens and visitors. In Vietnam, face masks were given out to travelers passing through airports, and Taiwan and Thailand banned the export of masks to ensure that local demand is met.
Face Masks in Modern East Asian Culture
Outside of the pandemic, masks are still widely used for various non-medical reasons. This could range from wanting to cover a cold sore or a red nose caused by allergies, to keeping warm during cold winter months.
In recent years, face masks have become a fashion accessory, too. In Japan, face masks are adorned with stylish designs and cute characters, and at China Fashion Week in 2014 designer Yin Peng showed a line of smog couture clothing complete with various protective masks.
Young people are also said to enjoy wearing face masks because they act as a sort of social firewall. Healthy teens can often be seen wearing face masks in public to signal that they don’t wish to communicate with those around them. And, young women even use face masks for the anonymity they offer in an effort to avoid harassment on public transport.
Should We be Wearing Face Masks?
Studies suggest that yes, we should be wearing masks in public places during the coronavirus pandemic. Doing so helps us to contain the spread by reducing transmission, keeping you, your loved ones, and your entire community safe.