Apparently, Roger Ebert and William Gibson have discovered that Japan has a thing for surgical masks. This is true. Japan does have a thing for surgical masks. They are worn as protection from both allergens and airborne illnesses. They’re available in most every convenience store, at a variety of price points. (Here are some examples from 2009.) When I visited Japan, I saw old people wearing them. But now, they’re a hot new trend among young people. And according to the Asahi Shimbun (Japan’s biggest daily paper), it’s because Japanese teens are just as troubled and insular as the nation’s economy.
Well no shit, Sherlock.
Now, I realize I might be blowing some minds here, but teens are troubled in general. They don’t like you. They don’t want to like you. They don’t even want to know you. This isn’t because they’re not great, nice, fun people. They are. With their friends. Who are not you.
There’s a tendency among foreigners to perceive Japanese trends through a Manichean lens. They’re either the height of innovation, or the relics of a weird and primitive culture. You’ll find this if you talk with someone for a while about anything markedly Japanese: manga, high-tech toilets, moe, visual kei bands, natto, charaben, soy sauce-flavoured KitKats…after you describe it, the person in front of you is either enthused and interested, or mildly squicked. The squicked-ness deepens as you explain that no, really, this kind of thing is entirely normal on the other side of the Pacific, and slowly your interlocutor’s face begins to resemble Laura Dern’s in Blue Velvet.
I mean, maybe it’s just the way I explain things. I suppose it could be that. I tend to get a little intense.
But really, even if Japanese teens are treating surgical masks as the sartorial equivalent of the Away icon, is that really such a bad thing? Leaving aside The Australian‘s hyperbolic description of this trend as cultish, the reality is that surgical face masks aren’t hurting anybody. I seem to recall a similar panic in America in the 1990′s, about hoodies. Teachers didn’t want you wearing your hood up in class. You couldn’t do business at your bank if your hood was up. Only criminals (hoodlums, even) wore their hoods up all the time. Criminals, and people who didn’t want to talk.
Sometimes when I’m on the subway I wish for an augmented reality overlay that would tell people if I was okay talking to them. It could work like a chat icon: green for yes, red for no, yellow for maybe. I could toggle it with eyeblinks, focusing on one person and granting them permission, possibly defaulting them to an always available setting. In the meantime, I wear headphones. I wear headphones (sweet, perfect little Sony earbuds that screen out just about everything) mostly for the music, but also for the camouflage. Headphones are an instant signal to everyone around me that I don’t want to be bothered. And for the most part, it works. The only time it hasn’t was with a World Vision volunteer who buttonholed me each time I crossed his corner last summer, demanding to know if I did, indeed, love children.
“Yes,” I answered, finally. “They’re great with barbecue sauce.”
I suppose responses like that are why I know I would wear a surgical mask like that if I could get away with it. If I lived in Japan at this very moment, I’d be all over those masks. Or rather, they’d be all over me. I would feel more comfortable wearing them — not because they granted me privacy (my limited Japanese language skills would do that) — but because I would only be confronting one part of my face at a time.
I once did an exercise during my graduate course on Freud’s concept of the uncanny, during which the entire class looked at only one eye. It was all very Un chien andalou, but while the other students felt creeped out, I really enjoyed it. It was nice, only having to look at one part of myself. I could consider it in isolation, rather than confronting the whole. I had a similar experience in high school, when my boyfriend took a black and white photo of just the area around my eyes. “You don’t want the whole thing?” I asked.
“No. This is my favourite part of you, anyway.”
I remember squinting at the photo. My dad’s eyes were in there, the ones that crinkled too much on one side. And the eyebrows my mom was always telling me to manage were in there too, being just as unkempt and bristly and boyish as ever. If my eyes were my greatest physical attribute, I decided, things were really bad.
I mention this story as another answer to why people, and teens in particular, might choose to wear face masks. We live in a culture of Clearasil. We mobilize vast empires of industry to initiate teenage insecurity and then assuage it with product. (And that strategy doesn’t really change once we age into adult demographics — the products just get more expensive.) Japan has a highly-evolved bullying culture, one with a direct correlation to the school refusal and hikikomori trends. But somehow, this isn’t mentioned as a possible reason for the sudden profusion of masks on teenage faces.
Couldn’t it just be simple insecurity? Couldn’t it be the desire to blend in? Couldn’t it be an excuse not to talk? You know…everyday features of teenage life in first world countries?