Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Of all the behaviours that are likely to stick with us after the pandemic is gone, the most fascinating is masking. That’s not just because it’s been such a divisive issue in North America, it’s because there are so many places like Japan where it was never an issue at all. When the pandemic began, the Japanese weren’t scrambling for masks to wear outside. They already had them, and there was zero issue in simply wearing them in places other than the subway where they were already widely used. Let’s just say that I haven’t seen one of these videos yet from Japan, but I saw them every day in my country and the United States.
News Clip: [Customer] Everybody else is wearing a [bleep] mask. So why are you worried about me? Isn’t that enough protection? Just leave me the [bleep] alone.
News Clip 2: [Customer] You guys are asking me to leave the store for not wearing a mask when I have a medical condition, even though yours is pulled under your nose.
[Manager] Do you have a note that says-
[Customer] I don’t have to bring a note and yours isn’t even on.
News Clip 3: [Customer] One day it’s wear a mask. The next day it’s going to be something else. Study Hitler.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Now that we are cautiously inching towards the end of the pandemic, many places in the US and in Canada are ending their mask mandates. Masks are now no longer required in most indoor spaces in British Columbia, in Alberta, and in Saskatchewan. And while it remains to be seen if cases will now climb in those provinces, it also remains to be seen how many people will wear them and where, now that masks are optional. After living with these face coverings for more than a year, have they become a habit to us yet? How did they become so ingrained in the culture in places like Japan and not in the West? Can we find a way to keep using them when they’re needed without continuing the culture war that has sprung up around them? And can we expect further mandates either if cases rise again or maybe just during a really bad flu season?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii is a Professor of Shumei University in Japan. He’s currently working at its overseas campus, Chaucer College in Canterbury in the UK. He has a PhD in Sociology and has studied the history of mask wearing in Japan. Hello, Professor Horii.
Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii: Hello. Hi.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Before we talk about Eastern versus Western views on the practice of mask wearing, maybe you could just go way back and explain, when did public mask wearing for health reasons originate?
Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii: Yes, history shows it originates in the West as the practice of mask wearing was carried out, in especially the medical institutions, across the West, also in Japan. But I think the mask wearing was popularized during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Then I think public mask wearing was encouraged in the West, both in Europe and North America. In the case of Japan, it was introduced to the Japanese health authorities during the time at practice commonly carried out in the West. Then health authority imported that practice to Japan. So that was kind of the origin of mask wearing.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And after that pandemic passed, where did the practice remain? And where did it vanish?
Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii: It remained in Japan, but somehow it disappeared in North America and Europe. I still don’t know why it disappeared. So that is kind of the big mystery. Probably we need a further research on.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, and that’s kind of what we’re going to talk about as we get deeper into this conversation. But how did it become so embedded in the culture in Japan that it just stuck around?
Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii: Yeah. Very difficult to make sense of it. It may be that simply just coincidence or there may be some kind of cultural aspect. One possibility would be people have less hesitation about covering part of your face. People in the West in general tend to be more hesitant, tend to have a stronger resistance about covering part of your face. So I think that may be the possibility, but I’m not entirely sure about the history of other East Asian countries.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Can you explain to me the messaging around mask wearing? There was a lot of conversation, especially here in the West at the beginning of the pandemic, about whether you should wear masks for yourself or to protect others. And what’s that messaging like in Japan?
Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii: There are mixed message. I think official line is the same. “You should we must to protect others”. But I think in the history of Japanese mask wearing, I think people develop the practice of mask wearing for yourself to protect yourself. I think in the history, in the beginning, there was in our earlier stage of mask wearing in Japan, there was a debate about wearing masks to protect yourself, saying it’s not scientifically correct, but I think that kind of the culture was, you know, Let’s just ignore people’s convention. Let’s stop kind of criticizing it because that encourage people to wear mask anyway. So kind of, you know, I think we actually see kind of sudden change in people’s behaviour here in England as well. Initially, it was encouraged to wear masks to protect others. But as people keep using their mask, it kind of, as soon as it become part of people’s lives, people feel comfortable or being protected when they’re wearing masks. So I think more and more people start wearing masks in order to protect themselves.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right. In your work, you called it a ‘risk ritual’. Can you explain what that means and why we do that?
Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii: Yeah. That kind of concept captures how we behave in the face of uncertainty to restore kind of psychological stability, when we face uncertainty in front of us in order to dissolve that sort of uncomfortable feeling, we tend to do something. In a way, in the face of uncertainty, people want to know what to do and mask kind of gives it a very simple strategy for people, a very simple way of doing something. Then by doing it, you feel as if you are in control of the situation. So that is what we call “risk ritual”.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: If that’s one of the reasons that people do it, and some of the other reasons are just to feel better about yourself or to feel like you’re protecting others, why has it in the West become such a cultural flashpoint?
Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii: It seems like an origin of Spanish flu pandemic, because I read some of the historical documents saying in the US, for example, during that time in some cities there was a strong resistance of protest from a certain group of people arguing the mandatory mask wearing, something against civil Liberty. And I think we see the similar kind of debate here in Europe, and they also probably even stronger in North America. Somehow covering part of your face become politicized. Somehow it is kind of connected to people’s value orientation, their kind of political ideology. Feels like the face symbolize something very important, something almost fundamental in people’s cultural body in the West, almost like covering your face symbolizes sense of oppression. And I can see kind of clear division along that political line in the West in general. I think in the US, for example, I don’t live in the US, so I don’t have a first kind of hand experience. But as far as I see through the media, feels like, for example, in the last presidential election, mask become a symbol of different political ideologies.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: As this pandemic drags on into, like a year and a half now. And it looks like in many parts of the world it’s going to continue for at least a good deal longer until vaccination gets everywhere, are masks becoming more normalized to the point where, and this is one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you and have this discussion, to the point where they will remain as part of the culture, if not worn all the time. Like, are we getting used to them? And what will it take for them to just become a part of lives the way they are in Japan?
Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii: I think the longer this pandemic prolongs, I think there is more likely to stay mask wearing in the Western culture. But for example, now in England, mask wearing is not mandatory. It’s not required by the law. But lots of people, I think still willing to keep wearing it, especially lots of businesses want customer to wear inside the building, public transport. So I think still, because of the fear of infection, infection rate is still high and increasing, people are still willing to wear for utility, but I don’t know how long this stays on when pandemic ends. I think because the mask wearing is almost like a symbol of restriction, kind of not wearing a mask may symbolize end of the pandemic, and people may feel keeping that way, but this is difficult to predict, but because in history, mask wearing quickly disappeared after Spanish Flu pandemic, I think it may disappear, but I think it may disappear slowly if the pandemic continue longer.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: From a sociological perspective, if we here in the West wanted mask wearing to stick around on transit or during flu season, and that kind of thing, if we wanted to make it less of a culture war issue and more of just a common thing, how would we do that? What kind of messaging would work?
Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii: I think the message has to come from scientists because I think one of the reasons the government in the Western countries started to encourage people to wear mask in this pandemic is actually the changing scientific consensus. There are probably the more likelyhood in the countries. Maybe each National government may encourage mask wearing in public spaces or the public transport in next flu season or something, because now scientific community are actually saying mask is effective to prevent a spread of flu-ike disease. Yeah.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Last question, what do people in Japan think of the way masks have become so politicized and especially the United States, but also in other Western countries? It must seem a little bit absurd to them.
Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii: Many people actually didn’t know mask wearing wasn’t common in the West. The Japanese people I speak to who live in Japan, they were surprised, oh, you know, why people not wearing masks in the West? They didn’t know mask wasn’t worn in the West. For them, that makes sense why the infection rates are so high in England or other countries. And many of my friends in Japan kind of tend to say in the UK infection so high, maybe they should wear a mask, that sort of thing. So in a way, once they knew mask wearing wasn’t practiced in the West and those countries had a higher infection, many of my Japanese friends tend to think, oh, Japanese doing better because we are wearing mask, so mask kind of became reason of, kind of, Japanese partial success.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, I envy the places where it is not a big deal, and everybody just wears it and nobody has to talk about it. Professor Horii, thank you so much for this conversation.
Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii: My pleasure.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Dr. Mitsutoshi Horii, of Shumei University. That was The Big Story, for more head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Talk to us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Send us lengthy, thoughtful emails at thebigstorypodcast, all one word, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And, of course, download this podcast, subscribe to this podcast, follow this podcast, like this podcast, rate it and review it in your favourite podcast player.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Back to top of page