Melanie Brock is a specialist in Japan-APAC relations. She has her own consultancy and is a senior adviser at FGS Global.
It is not that I like wearing a mask. Nor do I like seeing my grandchildren having to wear masks.
What I do not like, nor understand, however, is how masks have become so politicized. Given that it has been proven that masks help prevent the spread of airborne infection, I cannot fathom how people get so agitated about having to wear one.
People often say to me that the Japanese are used to wearing masks, and this is true. Another thing I often hear is that the Japanese like wearing masks, but I am not so sure about that one.
What is beyond doubt is that wearing a mask is not a big deal for most Japanese. Compared to many other countries, wearing a mask here just is not an issue. People wear masks on trains, in buses, at school and at work. And mostly, people do not complain.
In the cold and flu season, masks help to keep the spread of infection at bay, and, for hay fever sufferers, the modern mask can really help. When the pandemic came to town, people here popped up on a mask knowing that would do the job, not because they like wearing masks.
In Australia, where I am from, people were fined for not wearing masks during the pandemic. Here in Japan, while not enforced, it was this commitment to public health and a sense that someone might see you without a mask and tattle about you that kept people masked up. The fear of what the neighbors might say remains a strong driver of social behavior in Japan.
Apparently, masks were first introduced to Japan in the 1800s from the UK Ironic to imagine that the country that brought masks to Japan’s shores actually helped to foster so much in the way of anti-mask sentiment and now prides itself on not making its citizens wear them.
As case numbers continue to fall in Japan and the temperature increases, people are starting to ask when we might move to the next phase of prevention measures.
The central government has recently issued guidelines advising people they can take off their masks while outdoors, especially where it is possible to demonstrate social distancing. I notice that many commuters are now walking to and from the station without their mask on, or just over their chin.
What will it take to free people further, I wonder? Perhaps if Prime Minister Fumio Kishida himself was to make a definitive statement about de-masking, people would become less mindful of what others might say.
As for myself, I would love to throw away my mask too, but until any such directive from the government or the prime minister, I shall remain masked up. I already stand out enough as it is.
As Japan moves to open its doors, ever so slowly allowing foreign tourists back in, one issue of note for many is how we can get visiting foreigners to follow the mask rules. Kishida has made it clear that he expects foreigners to adhere to the same guidelines as Japanese citizens when he announced the easing of border controls.
While I know that many will not hesitate to put on a mask, I am also aware that there are many foreigners who will refuse to wear one. My sense is that every time Japanese policymakers saw an anti-mask rally overseas, it added to their concerns about opening the border.
Recently, I tweeted about a couple wandering around Ginza without masks, suggesting that they should at least have a visible mask and that when in Rome, they should perhaps do as the Romans do. I am not one to shy away from a social media debate, but I copped quite a hiding over that one tweet.
What really fascinated me was the responses from people who believe that masks are a waste of time and play no role in slowing the spreading of infections.
One outraged foreigner told me to stick to my knitting. Another asked if I appointed myself head of the mask police. One dolt with too much time on his hands actually went to the effort of finding a photo of me without a mask while out with friends in a restaurant. Seriously? Perhaps he should reread the guidelines that say you can take your mask off when eating and drinking.
Even more remarkable, though, are the claims made by some on Twitter that the latest Japanese government mask guidelines are a human rights issue. To make such claims is to belittle those facing genuine problems. As for those who say Japan’s current travel guidelines are turning this country into something akin to North Korea, what absolute piffle.
Do not get me wrong. I advocate for change all day long. I try my hardest “to play the ball, not the man.” Naturally, I hope the borders open to allow friends and family members to visit. I yearn for carefree maskless days.
But for those individuals who think that attacking the government over its policies or, worse still, having a go at the Japanese people for wearing masks because they elect to follow the rules will change anything, then you need to get a grip and choose another country to live in. More importantly, put a bloody mask on.
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