For many, especially those in the States, wearing masks is a long-forgotten custom. Hop on a plane to South Korea, Japan or Okinawa and you’ll see that locals (and foreigners) have not yet thrown caution to the wind and are still sporting their masks inside and outside.

For the average tourist, the masks may be a bit of a shock and inconvenience, but wearing a mask, particularly in the winter months, has always been a part of the local culture in Japan and during the dust season in Korea.

Below are the experiences Stars and Stripes writers Hyemin Lee in South Korea, Takahiro Takiguchi in mainland Japan, and Shoji Kudaka in Okinawa have had adjusting to the recent lifting of local government policies regarding mask wearing. In these two countries, wearing a mask goes beyond the pandemic and you’ll be surprised to know why some are choosing to keep their masks on.

Ginza in Tokyo

The truth of mask-wearing among Koreans, Hyemin Lee, Stripes Korea

A few months ago, when I put on some weight, I became even more reliant on wearing a mask than during the peak of COVID-19. As soon as I covered half of my face with a mask, I found peace and freedom from the fear of the thoughts wondering if people could notice my face had gotten puffy.

During the pandemic, wearing masks became a big part of daily life in Korea, and Koreans learned a lot of the benefits of wearing masks. Even after the policy for masking indoors and outdoors was lifted March 20 and Korean government declared an end to COVID-19 on May 11, you still see many Koreans swearing masks. While, from an American perspective, this may seem puzzling, understanding Korean culture can help you have better insight into this phenomenon.

Many Koreans find their masks comfortable and convenient to wear since they can hide appearance, emotions, and identity, in turn, providing freedom from many societal tensions.

Due to the high beauty standards Korean society demands, many Koreans feel pressured to meet a certain standard in their appearance. If you don’t take care of how you look in public, it can be considered impolite or embarrassing, regardless of gender or age. Masks, however, cover half of the face, so it’s an easy way to hide from judgment.

Moreover, many like to use masks that match their skin tone and only worry about caring about the upper half of their faces. This has coined new slang term “ma-gikkun,” which is a combination of “ma” from mask and “gikkun” from sa-gikkun, which means con artist in Korean. It means that someone looks great while wearing a mask, but when half of their face is revealed, it is a scam. Well, many say there are no scammers but only people who feel deceived.

Another plus side of mask wearing is that you don’t have to force a smile during social activities. As long as you maintain the tone of your voice, your facial expression behind the mask will not be revealed. In addition, you can even hide your identity. For example, you can walk past someone you don’t want to engage without them noticing you.

After years of mandatory masking, for some removing the masks and revealing bare faces is as embarrassing and uncomfortable as taking off their underwear in public.

Beyond beauty standards and even before COVID-19, masks were recommended for days with high levels of fine dust pollution. Also, masks are believed to not only prevent COVID-19 but other respiratory viruses. In Korea, wearing masks is considered a responsible and considerate act of protecting oneself and others for a sense of health security.

The other significant reason many still cling to their masks can be because of the strong sense of collective consciousness among Koreans, where following the majority trend feels like an obligation. While many may claim it is for health reasons, the truth is t people are afraid of standing out or drawing unnecessary attention in public. Many tend to conform to public opinion rather than having their own.

When the government announced and enforced the mask rule during COVID-19, many Koreans followed the guidelines without much complaint. Koreans didn’t really see it as a violation of individual freedom. Instead, they believed that following the system was necessary for the safety and well-being of themselves and others. Unlike American society where individual freedom is valued above all else, Koreans tend to place greater importance on safety and rules that the majority follow.

Wearing a mask is now a matter of personal preference, and no one should be criticized for their decision whether to wear it or not. Despite this, given the circumstances mentioned earlier, many Koreans still choose to wear masks in public. While personally, I prefer not to wear a mask at all now, I still bring one with me in my purse, just in case. For many Koreans, it’s unnecessary to break the unwritten rule that the majority follows, particularly when wearing masks is recommended for health reasons.

Face masks in mainland Japan an unbreakable part of local culture, Takahiro Takiguchi, Stripes Japan

Last month, the Japanese government downgraded COVID-19 and made mask-wearing noncompulsory. Despite the policy changes, a lot of Japanese mainlanders continue to wear face masks, regardless of the settings and conditions.

During the pandemic, face masks were flying off the shelves. There was a time where masks were sold out everywhere and we started making our own. Using instructions available online and material from around the house, my wife made masks by carefully stitching by hand for me and my daughter.

Now, you can buy dozens of bargain-priced face masks everywhere, but I’ll never forget my wife’s handcrafted masks, which kept my face warm and protected me during the pandemic.

But, prior to COVID-19, wearing a facemask was already a part of the culture in Japan. Masks are used to prevent spreading the flu and to protect our sinuses from hay fever. In Japan, face masks are another part of winter wear like coats, scarves and gloves.
I even wore masks before 2020 during my two-hour-plus-long train commute to work in Tokyo every morning. And I rarely see anyone on a packed train not wearing a mask.

Truthfully, the changes to policy are a bit awkward and kicking this long-established policy is a bit of a challenge. You’ll still see many hardcore facemaskers around Japan, but, gradually, some are starting to shed their masks while socializing with coworkers, family and friends.

The complex feelings over masks also includes kids. During the pandemic, many young students had a hard time adapting to face masks and having to wear them during class and activities. I assumed the policy change would make kids happy to finally be free of masks. However, according to my wife who works helping foreign students at various Japanese public schools in Yokosuka City, teachers are removing their masks, but students are keeping theirs on.

It seems like parents are asking their children to mask up at schools to prevent illnesses from spreading to the home. Though the government policy says it’s up to the individual, I understand the parents’ fears and complicated feelings on masks for students and teachers.

Another change, which I gladly welcomed, was the removal of partitions and sneeze guards in izakaya pubs and restaurants. It was a relief to finally chat and laugh with my friends over snacks, beer and sake like we did in the past.

Since the changes in policy, things seem to be getting back to normal and masks are slowly disappearing. But it will take us some time as it feels like some things have changed permanently and irreversibly because of the pandemic.
My not-so-cool mask story, Shoji Kudaka, Stripes Okinawa

If I were to tell you my honest feelings about wearing a mask, you might laugh. It’s because I have no problem with wearing it as long as makes me feel safe from COVID-19.

Although the Japanese government made it official March 13 that we no longer need to wear a mask whether we’re indoors or outdoors, I still didn’t feel OK to take off my mask right away.

On Okinawa, there are still around 100 to 200 COVID-19 cases daily. During Golden Week, a series of spring holidays in late April/early May, the cases jumped to 400. Even after the government downgraded COVID-19 to flu level May 8, things don’t feel any different now than they did over the last three years.

Like other locals you see at the supermarket or restaurants around the island, I still feel comfortable staying behind a mask.

Maybe I am too conservative. I am the kind of person who, like the Japanese idiom says, “Ishibashi wo Tataite Wataru” (knock on a stone bridge before crossing it). That, or I’d rather knock the bridge down and not take any risks.

Still, even a Mr. Play-it-safe like me will sometimes remove my mask. Like when I go to work in the office, I have fun chatting with my American coworkers maskless. I know these people well, so it does not make me uncomfortable to take a mask off there. Plus, some part of it is probably about being cool as well.

At recreational areas such as beaches and parks, I enjoy soaking up the sun and breathing the air freely. Perhaps I subconsciously think that being on a sandy shore without a mask would make me look cool.

Hearing how quickly people in the States moved away from mask mandates, I can only guess that my stance would look odd to them. By holding on to a mask, I may be making myself look “uncool.”

But getting back to normal still feels precarious to me, and the time doesn’t seem right yet to go all in on a mask-free life.

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