A ‘Ritual' of Surgical Mask Wearing in Japan: A Short History

Monday, July 14, 2014: 7:00 PM
Room: Booth 52
Distributed Paper
Mitsutoshi HORII , Tourism and Business Management, Shumei University, Japan
The practice of surgical mask wearing in Japan has been adopted by a significant proportion of the national population and has become embedded in people’s everyday lives. This paper studies the practice as a ‘ritual’ and outlines its history in Japan. The notion of ritual is employed in this paper, not analytically, but operationally, in order to highlight the structural/functional aspect of the practice, by which individuals come to terms with invisible threats. In the 1920s, the practice of mask wearing, introduced from the West and conveying the symbolism of modern science, replaced pre-modern ‘superstitious’ rituals against flu in Japan. It started to be worn by healthy individuals in order to avoid infection, and spread as a matter of social etiquette to the infected, so as not to infect others. In addition to this usage, which continues up to the present, by the 1990s masks had become widely used by cedar pollinosis sufferers to avoid inhaling pollen. Some people wear masks in order to prevent their throats from drying up or to keep their faces warm, while others hide their faces behind masks for cosmetic or psychological reasons. More recently, radioactive particles from Fukushima and air pollution spreading from China have been added to the list of health risks to be minimised by wearing masks. Wearing a mask appears to provide peace of mind amidst uncertainties. Its instrumental value in reducing health risks is scientifically inconclusive. What is certain is that the practice precedes scientific discussions. The practice of mask wearing absorbs anxieties and uncertainties and restores a sense of security and self-control.