Combination of factors is keeping masks on in Tokyo even as the government says they don’t have to be.

On March 13, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare revised its mask recommendations, saying that the wearing of masks as a coronavirus countermeasure will now be “left to personal judgement.” But unlike in some other parts of the world, the lifting of masking recommendations didn’t result in a mass peeling off of face covering and an audible satisfied sigh from the people of Japan.

Instead, our reporters found that little had changed in the days immediately following the relaxed guidelines, as the vast majority of people we saw in Tokyo, both indoors and out, remained masked up while around others, and broadcaster Nippon Television Network had similar observations. Setting up a camera on a busy street outside Tokyo Station on March 13, the network found that 89.7 percent of passersby were masked up.

But one month later, has baseline behavior changed? On April 10 (which, like May 13, was a Monday), Nitele repeated the experiment at the same location, at the same time of day, and the result was…

…pretty much the same. Nearly a month after “follow your personal judgement” became the government’s stance on masks, the vast majority, 85.6 percent, of people were still wearing masks this past Monday.

There are a couple of likely reasons why, starting with the fact that Tokyo is seeing an uptick in its number of new coronavirus infections. On February 27, the city saw 1,028 new infections, but the daily number dipped below 1,000, and stayed down there, all the way until March 26. Since then, though, there have been six more days with over 1,000 new infections, including five in row from April 2 to April 6 (and with 956 on April 7, Tokyo just barely missed having six over-1,000 days in a row).

There’s also the fact that cherry blossom season, which started in late March this year, is really the first significant “get out and go places” occasion in quite some time. Though many travel and event regulations were scaled back last fall, the next major vacation period in Japan wasn’t until New Year’s, which most people celebrate by going back to their hometowns and relaxing at home with family. Cherry blossom season, though, involved a lot more close contact with others at crowded parks and hanami (cherry blossom-viewing) parties, which also means a lot more clustering in famous sakura spots and their associated transportation access points. So with more people moving around, staying masked likely seems like a good idea to many.

Another major factor is that it’s hay fever season in Japan right now. The country’s high concentrations of eminently allergenic pollen had made masking up part of spring for many long before the coronavirus pandemic. With masks already so prevalent at this time of year, you’re not going to look odd at all with one on, and so even people who don’t suffer from hay fever, but are still a little leery about the possibility of coronavirus infection, can remain masked up without feeling self-conscious.

And last, but definitely not least, is that even before the government made their recommendation official on March 13, a lot of the masking that was going on in Japan was already largely a matter of personal judgement. Even during the height of the pandemic, a lot of the masking taking place wasn’t due to legal requirements, but a general sense of “Well, this might be sort of a hassle, but if it helps prevent people getting sick, then I’ll do it.” Being willing to take on a bit of personal inconvenience for the public good is one of Japan’s defining societal values, and complaining about it is a pretty quick way to earn a reputation as selfish and immature. So even as Nitele’s study shows masks becoming slightly less common, they’re still the norm in Japan, and probably will be for a while longer.

Source: Nitele via Livedoor News via Hachima Kiko, Tokyo Metropolitan Government
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