Commentary: Maskless tourists in Japan trigger debate over ‘face underwear’
Some Japanese fret that maskless tourists will set off another surge in infections, while others argue that Japan should catch up with the rest of the world and abandon masks, says Gearoid Reidy for Bloomberg Opinion.
TOKYO: With the borders finally open, foreigners arriving in Japan are noticing some things here are different. Dining out is a bargain, thanks to relatively low inflation and the weak yen. Once-familiar areas are now unrecognisable thanks to a building boom. And mask-wearing is still almost ubiquitous, even outdoors.
The Japanese public still prefers to mask up, despite increased prodding from the government to let their guard down a little. For many visitors from the West, for whom masks have become a long-abandoned battleground in the culture wars, it can be slightly disorientating.
The feeling is mutual. The return of reluctant-to-mask tourists is triggering internal debate on Japan’s outlier status. From day one, the country has largely followed its own pandemic playbook – eschewing lockdowns, mass testing and vaccine mandates in favor of a low-tech, common sense approach.
Despite never ordering mask wearing, encouraging their use in almost all social situations was a core part of this plan. The population was familiar with masks since long before COVID-19: It was considered polite to wear one when sick, while millions more wore them in hay fever season.
During the pandemic, masks have become such an integral part of society that they’ve been nicknamed “kao pantsu,” or face underwear – such is the idea of being caught without one.
ATTITUDES ON FACE MASKS ARE CHANGING
As foreigners return in droves, some Japanese fret that maskless tourists will help set off another surge in infections.
Others argue that Japan instead should use the opportunity to imitate the West’s abandoning of masks, with face-coverings alone failing to stem a record-breaking COVID-19 wave this summer. Implicit in the criticism is a feeling that Japan is lagging the rest of the world, clinging to outmoded methods others have already dropped.
Authorities appear divided: Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, keen to get people out spending, has suggested reviewing mask guidelines, and is appearing in public more frequently without one. Those around him are reported to be more cautious, worrying that the elderly population will be struck by a double whammy of COVID-19 and flu this winter.
A poll in late August found that only 20 per cent of the public want to copy other countries in discarding masks entirely.
But attitudes are changing nonetheless. GMO Internet Group, the Tokyo tech conglomerate that was the country’s first large firm to switch to work from home after Wuhan went into lockdown in January 2020, has now come full circle and abandoned rules requiring masks in the office.
“The world is moving to escape COVID-19,” founder and CEO Masatoshi Kumagai wrote in a series of tweets. “If we continue to work from home and wear masks, we can’t win in business.”
Should Japan look to the world for advice, or the other way around?
Whatever Japan did during the pandemic, it got something right: While it might be an outlier in persisting with masks, it’s a bigger anomaly when it comes to COVID-19 deaths. Fatalities are a full order of magnitude lower than the United Kingdom or the United States, despite having no lockdowns and the world’s oldest population.
Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, has described it as a “model country” from which we can learn as winter approaches in the northern hemisphere.
The changing of the seasons is already causing some nations to reconsider their approaches: Germany’s health minister says he backs wearing masks indoors amid a surge in cases, while Ontario in Canada looks set to recommend masking again.
THE RISK OF FLIP-FLOPPING ON MASK ADVICE
Japan could easily find itself flip-flopping on mask advice. And the costs of getting it wrong are not theoretical: Life expectancy in the US has fallen for two years in a row due to COVID-19, only the second time in a century that’s happened, while even top performer Singapore has seen lifespans drop for the first time since records began.
That’s a reversal of a trend that’s been the goal of health experts and governments for decades – spending billions of dollars in campaigns against unhealthy eating, drunk driving or smoking, screenings to catch and treat disease earlier, or the dozens of other ways health professionals have sought to mitigate risks.
There are sensible changes we can make to our lifestyles that reduce risk as we search for a more permanent solution to COVID-19. Until then, masking in situations such as public transport should remain in our arsenal, along with improved ventilation.
For Japan to copy the approach of countries that so spectacularly failed to contain the pandemic feels akin to repeating the tragedy of Ignaz Semmelweis, the 19th century Hungarian scientist who pioneered the idea that surgeons should wash their hands before they operated to reduce infection.
He was right, though he didn’t yet have germ theory to support why; but his theories were ignored by the medical community and recognised only many years after his death, after countless women had died needlessly in childbirth.
The costs and benefits of each pandemic-era tool should be examined. For Japan, lengthy border closures have certainly been too great a cost.
The country is right to welcome back tourists who, along with the public at large, should be given clear, easy-to-follow masking guidelines rather than the current confusing hodge-podge – and that should include removing them where they’re no longer needed, such as outdoors.
Both visitors to Japan and its residents have a little to learn from one another; with the borders open, it’s time to let that information flow.