Photo/Illutration Many people wear masks in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward in January. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Every day, I notice a growing number of commuter train passengers wearing a face mask.

Looking around the car yesterday, I noticed that about 20 percent of the riders fell into that category.

Many wore the standard rectangular type with horizontal pleats, while some sported black masks of the kind seen on street demonstrators overseas.

According to the Zenkoku Masuku Kogyokai (national association of mask manufacturers), face masks came into wide use in Japan during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Before that time, their use was limited almost entirely to protecting coal miners from coal dust.

During the Showa Era (1926-1989), the mask-wearing population grew with each flu epidemic, and the trend became firmly established when pollen allergies became a bane of many Japanese.

"By global standards, Japan's 'mask culture' is a bit of an anomaly," noted Yukiko Iida, 43, the technology department chief at Environmental Control Center Co., a Tokyo-based research company. "I am often asked (by people overseas) why Japanese wear a mask even when they don't have a cold."

In Beijing and Bangkok, Iida said, the mask is worn primarily for protection against car exhaust and dust. In Europe and the United States, she continued, few people go out wearing a mask because the common perception is that only the gravely ill do so.

In Japan, the uses are many and varied. Aside from contagious diseases and pollens, the mask keeps a lot of other things away--dryness of the throat, sunburn, tobacco odors and so on. And self-conscious women "hide" behind a mask when they don't have their makeup on.

"Various types of masks are developed for all sorts of purposes, and that's why Japanese are seen wearing a mask all year round," Iida explained.

Iida's job is to research the effectiveness of dust masks, and she admitted to feeling frustrated when she comes across "sloppy" mask wearers.

"The mask is not a good-luck charm. There is no point in wearing it unless you wear it properly," she said.

It is crucial, she pointed out, that one's face is tightly covered from the nose to the chin.

According to Japan's traditional lunisolar calendar, Dec. 7 is "taisetsu" (major snow), and a deep, wintry chill is forecast for the entire nation.

If you do go out with a mask, remember to wear it the right way.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 7

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.