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If you have been to Japan, one of the mysteries that you might be puzzled is the trend of wearing masks on the streets, on trains, basically everywhere. If you saw it for the first time, it might send shrills down your spine, making you worry if there is a deadly pandemic virus going around and everyone is on high alert against it but you. Or you might be panicking, as you are surrounded by serial killers and bank robbers wearing masks.

Well, that might be the reason, but there is much more to it.

I was watching this morning show one day where they finally explained the rationale behind this, as they interviewed people on the streets who wore masks. It can be simply summarized into four points.

1. To protect themselves against flu, germs and virus- No, it is not against a deadly pandemic, but cleanliness-conscious people in Japan are always paranoid about the germs swimming around in the air. Well, no surprise, if you have seen how we squeeze into the trains every morning, stealing every single oxygen molecule available in the air. When one old sleepy salaryman lets out a sneeze, the germs would probably reach the ten other people standing around him in the train. And since it is so crowded you cannot even raise your hands to cover your nose, the only option left is to wear a mask.

2. To prevent spreading of germs one when one is sick- Yes, this is probably the most sensible and logical rationale. Responsibility of the sick not to spread it to others, especially when others are not wearing masks. However, this is taken a step further in Japan. When I fell sick once at work, my boss reprimanded me for not wearing a mask.

3. To cover your suppin face- Everyone knows that Japan is a make-up society. Almost all girls put on make-up whenever they step out of their homes. Suppin is the term used to describe the state of the face without make-up, or in other words, the original face.

It can be seen as an etiquette, it can also be seen as distinguishing between the inside (home) and outside, anomalous to the Japanese culture of tatemae (putting up a front/ not telling the truth for courtesy). So, when girls are in a rush to get out of the house without time to put on make up, they wear masks, so they would not offend people with their original faces.

4. To guard against the cold- Japan is probably not the coldest country in the world, but it does have strong winds that freeze the blood cells in our cheeks with every blow. Wearing masks is a way to guard against the cold winds.

On a slightly different note in reference to point 3 and 4, sunglasses are worn by ladies too, to hide their suupin faces, and to guard their eyes against the cold.

The next time you see Japanese (especially girls) wearing masks, do not suspect them or call the police. Just take a step back, and know that they are probably just sick, paranoid about cleanliness, cold, or just not having make-up on.

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