Many Japanese people regularly use white sanitary masks that hide half of their face, but contrary to popular belief, wearing a mask in Japan has absolutely nothing to do with pollution, as the country enjoys good air quality (unlike its Asian neighbours), even in the big cities… Indeed, Tokyo does not experience smog and has a relatively low concentration of fine particles.
The main reason for wearing a mask is to avoid spreading germs to others: whether it’s a simple cold or a good flu, in Japan when you’re sick, you always wear a mask to protect those around you, it’s a matter of common sense and mutual respect. However, during cold periods, which are the most conducive to getting sick, more people also wear masks only as a preventive measure, because prevention is better than cure.
Another reason for wearing a mask in winter is that it keeps your face warm, and more importantly, it prevents your throat from being irritated by cold air when you breathe.
Then there is the problem of pollen that arises with the arrival of spring. In fact, nearly a quarter of Japanese people are allergic to pollen, so wearing a mask is still quite common in this season when temperatures are beginning to be mild. Nevertheless in summer, being hot and no longer having viruses in the air, the masks disappear from the faces to reappear only from autumn.
There are also several other reasons without any direct sanitary connection, such as in certain professional fields (station agents, police officers, taxis,…) where the wearing of masks can be a form of decorum often going hand in hand with the wearing of white gloves and thus marking a neat and respectful presentation.
Finally, as strange as it may seem to foreigners, the sanitary mask has become over time a fashion tool for some young Japanese who wear them in different colors and with various patterns.