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I hear that there are many anti-mask movements around the world, but that’s the last thing that will ever happen in Japan because every single Japanese wears a mask without complaint (except those who have specific reasons they can’t wear a mask).

The major three factors for this are inborn cleanliness, virtue of collective action and peer pressure.

I’m going to give you every single detail.

The Japanese always wore a mask in history

As many of you might already know, it’s not only recently that the Japanese started wearing a mask. For all the 30 years living in Japan, I have seen the majority of people wearing a mask especially in winter as a courtesy and precaution. Wearing a mask is a common practice in Japan.

When did people start wearing a mask then?

The key event that made masks popular among the general public in Japan was the Spanish Flu. Millions of people were infected throughout the world, and there were more than 450K cases in Japan alone.

The Japanese didn’t invent masks nor masks were common in Japan at that time, but suffering from the growing number of cases, the Japanese sought a way to mitigate the spread and found out that people in the West wore a mask to prevent the flu. Convinced that masks could save people’s lives, a lot of educational posters and news papers explained how masks could prevent droplet-borne diseases and encouraged people to wear a mask whenever they are in public.

Through this pandemic, masks became a symbol of hygiene in Japan and the Japanese started wearing a mask whenever they have a cold or want to prevent from getting one.

You can read more details in the following article (external link):

Japanese people are very clean

Even without taking into account the Spanish flu, the Japanese are very clean (inborn cleanliness). They wash their hands often, rinse dishes taking much time, and sanitize baby’s toys every time a baby drops one on the floor.

I don’t know, maybe these customs might have been established from the Spanish flu, but I kinda feel that the Japanese people have an anxious temperament in general and this makes them sensitive to dirty stuff. Purely my guess though.

The Japanese monitor each other and those who don’t wear a mask will be accused by “mask police”

Apart from the inborn cleanliness, there is another peculiar reason why everybody in Japan wears a mask without complaint It’s the “mask police” produced out of virtue of collective action and peer pressure.

Let’s see the process of how the “mask police” is produced.

Every Japanese lives under strict and complicated rules. Wearing a mask became one of them

First of all, there are so many rules in Japan and every Japanese is obliged to live under that. In this COVID-19 crisis, wearing a mask became a new rule that every single citizen is supposed to keep. Some are happy to keep the rules, but other feel oppressed by the obligation of keeping the rules.

But each society needs rules and there is nothing wrong about that, you think?

Of course, rules are necessary in human society, but the complexity and inexplicability of Japanese rules are beyond imagination. Look at some examples of the Japanese rules that every single Japanese needs to follow:

  • You must not talk on the phone on a train or a bus, but talking in person in a low voice is allowed
  • You must not talk in an elevator, on the phone or in person
  • You must not play a sound (ringtone or movies) in public
  • You must stand to the left but never to the right on an escalator*
  • If you are a school child and have brown hair, you have to dye it black (but dyeing black hair brown is not allowed). If you can’t dye your hair because of an allergy or something, you must submit a “proof of natural hair” to your school (read this article for more details about school rules in Japan)
  • You must not let superior people have a seat near the entrance
  • You must not have a tattoo
  • At a meal, you must eat miso soup first, rice second and the main dish last.
  • You must put fish facing to the right on a dish, never to the left
  • You must not sleep with your head facing north

*The escalator rule differs from region to region. People in Tokyo (and Kanto area) stand to the left, but people in Osaka (Kansai area) stand to the right.

This is just a part of the Japanese rules and there are a looooooot more. What do you say?

I know the background of some of them, but I have no idea why someone might have to accuse me for the way I put my fish on a plate. OK, there might be a great reason, but…


These are not defined by law nor there are penalties for breaking them, but the entire society is monitoring you (peer pressure) and breaking them will get yourself frowned upon. This is why people keep rules even if they are not necessarily reasonable. Some people feel it’s suffocating, but there is no other choice if breaking rules makes life difficult. What makes it even worse is that the Japanese feel anxious when they don’t act like others do (virtue of collective action). If everyone else keeps rules willingly or unwillingly, one follows the rules too. Needless to say, also, most Japanese are earnest and they feel guilty for breaking rules.

What happens if you follow rules reluctantly? See the next paragraph.

Stress of following those rules makes some of them monsters called “mask police”

Some are happy to follow rules, but others aren’t. But as the Japanese hate breaking rules, and the society is watching you anyway, there is no other choice but follow the rules as everyone else does. This peer pressure makes you stressed out.

But there is a certain number of people that don’t follow the rules and don’t wear a mask.

Seeing those rule breakers, the earnest and oppressed Japanese who follow rules unwillingly would feel “hey, I keep the rule even though I hate to. Why won’t he (she) keep it like everyone else and I do? I can’t accept that!”

This is where peer pressure stems from and the very moment when the “mask police” is born.

When those who wear a mask witness someone who doesn’t, some of them will yell at the people without a mask saying “WEAR A MASK!” These are the people called “mask police” because they crack down on people like police in their discretion.

Recently I read about an extreme case where a man approaches a mother with a baby in a stroller and yells at the mother saying “MAKE YOUR BABY WEAR A MASK!”

Let a baby wear a mask.

Can you believe this? Honestly I doubt this guy’s sanity. According to the article, this mother kept away from others, but this mask police approached her breaking social distancing. He WAS the one that broke the rule, but the fury made him blind.

The mask police people come down on those who don’t wear a mask for what they believe is “a good cause,” but in reality they only do so just to release their stress of reluctantly following rules.

Because people are afraid of being accused by the “mask police,” they wear a mask without a murmur. Of course many people wear a mask regardless of the existence of the mask police, but I’m sure a certain number of people wear a mask for this reason.

There are some other similar types of “police” under the coronavirus pandemic.

Other types of police under the COVID-19 pandemic

Self-restraint police

In order to prevent the spread of the virus, we are discouraged to make a trip even now, and in some regions people were not even allowed to go out a few months ago. Those who are sick of staying at home attack others who don’t self-restrain. They demand others to “self-restrain” from making a trip or running a shop/restaurant.

But the phrase “demand to self-restrain” sounds so weird to me because self-restraint means someone to voluntarily restrain from something and it’s not something to be required by others.

Number plate crackdown

In Japan, you can see where a car is from by looking at its number plate. During the period when we were asked to refrain from going to other prefectures, the “police” people cracked down on cars from other prefectures by sticking a bill saying “do self-restrain and don’t come to our prefecture!” or even by puncturing a tire.

The owners of some of the cars from a different prefecture live in the prefecture in question, but those “police” members don’t care because it’s all about how to release their stress.

As so many people suffered damage by the number plate crackdown, some driving sticker makers started selling stickers with a message “my car is from a different prefecture, but I live here!” This is so ironic that I don’t even have a word.

All together, the members of the “police” are called “coronavirus vigilantes” with irony.

There might be similar vigilantes outside of Japan too, but these “justice addicts” are a symbolic phenomenon in Japan where everyone if stressed and oppressed especially under the coronavirus crisis.

Fear of being watched and doing different things than others make the Japanese wear a mask without complaint

As you see by now, many Japanese follow rules unwillingly and watch each other to see if they don’t cheat. This peer pressure is one factor in addition to the inborn cleanliness that makes everyone wear a mask without complaint because even complaining might be caught and accused.

Another factor is that the Japanese are afraid of doing different things than others (virtue of collective action). If you don’t do what everyone else does (e.g. wear a mask), you will stand out and standing out from others is considered embarrassing in Japan. If a Japanese doesn’t wear a mask for some reason when everybody else does, he/she will probably feel “oh no, I’m the only one without a mask. I’m so embarrassed. They will talk about me behind my back.” This is another reason why the Japanese wear a mask because doing things that everyone else does is the right thing.

Japan might be a great country, but sometimes it’s a bit suffocating to live here. I understand everybody is stressed out under this COVID-19 crisis, but I hope the mask police will stop to think twice about what is the most important. The most important thing is how to prevent the virus from spreading, and not to wear a mask. Wearing a mask is just a means and not the goal.

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