Photo/Illutration Aviation workers sanitize cabin seats and floors of an aircraft at Kansai International Airport in June. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japan has been hailed for its widespread use of face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic, and various theories have been put forward for the trend, including peer pressure and common courtesy.

But every society has its share of selfish or defiant individuals, and one of them has forced the Japanese aviation industry to rethink how it should implement its mask-wearing policy.

A cabin attendant on a Sept. 7 domestic flight operated by budget carrier Peach Aviation Ltd. spotted a seated passenger without a face mask before the 12:30 p.m. scheduled departure from Kushiro Airport in Hokkaido.

The crew politely asked the man to cover his face. The passenger, however, snapped back: “What kind of rule is that? You should show me a document.”

He also rejected the crew’s request that he take a different seat to distance himself from other passengers, according to the airline.

Instead, those near the maskless man ended up moving away from him.

The plane took off 43 minutes after the scheduled departure time, partially due to heavy fog. But the man kept arguing loudly with other passengers over his refusal to wear a mask.

He also ignored crew members’ warnings and behaved in an intimidating manner, a representative of the airline said.

The pilot decided the man was violating a clause in the Civil Aeronautics Law by causing a major disturbance and threatening the security of the passengers and crew.

The plane made an emergency landing at Niigata Airport in the capital of Niigata Prefecture, and the maskless passenger was booted off.

The crew did show him a document, a warning that he must vacate the plane, the airline said. He obeyed that order.

The flight finally reached its original destination of Kansai International Airport in Osaka Prefecture, two hours and 16 minutes behind schedule.

According to the transport ministry, this was the first domestic flight to make an emergency landing over trouble stemming from a face mask policy.

A representative of Peach Aviation declined to say if the mask incident was reported to police or if the company plans to seek damages from the man for the delay.

The incident has raised questions among Japanese airlines on how to deal with passengers who refuse to wear masks.

Japanese carriers’ onboard mask policies are nonbinding and depend largely on the goodwill of the passengers.

The Scheduled Airlines Association of Japan, an organization consisting of 19 carriers, including Peach Aviation, set up guidelines on how to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in May.

They include “asking passengers to wear a face mask while onboard,” except for toddlers and people with special conditions.

But since the policy is nonbinding, the companies can only ask passengers to cover their faces. Airlines have no legal basis to deny service to person who does not don a face mask.

An official of the transport ministry’s Security Policy Office pointed out that the problem is not limited to air travel.

“In general, wearing a mask is not mandatory in public spaces in Japan,” the official said. “It is not clear if making it a requirement only for those inside an airplane would be socially acceptable. The law needs to be revised first.”


Carriers overseas have adopted a much tougher approach to passengers who refuse to cooperate with the health protocol.

Effective May 11, passengers flying on American Airlines are required to wear a mask or a face shield.

The U.S. company in August further tightened its guidelines, saying that masks “must be worn correctly, covering the nose and mouth,” and those “made with materials such as mesh or lace fabrics are not allowed.”

Wearing a mask is not mandated by law in the United States, but American Airlines said it followed the “most recent recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

South Korea’s national carrier, Korean Air Co., has implemented a “no mask, no fly” policy since Sept. 8. Crews can deny boarding to passengers who won’t wear masks.

If a passenger refuses to wear a mask and uses abusive language, Korean Air will issue a warning and report the incident to police. The airline said it hopes the announcement of its new policy will prevent any trouble over masks from occurring.

Yoshiaki Katsuda, a professor at the Kansai University of Social Welfare who specializes in travel medicine, said aircraft are usually equipped with ventilation filters that can catch airborne viruses.

Still, Katsuda recommends that passengers wear masks while onboard.

“You will not spread droplets containing viruses as long as you wear a mask,” he said. “The so-called universal mask policy, in which everybody, including asymptomatic patients, wear masks, is effective in stopping the virus from further spreading.”

Mafumi Usui, a social psychology professor at Niigata Seiryo University, said peer pressure to wear masks could be having the opposite effect in the pandemic.

“When one keeps feeling pressure to fall in line socially while worrying that ‘if I don’t wear a mask, people must look at me with disapproval,’ he or she could become combative and doubt that such (a protocol) even has a point,” Usui said.

“People should not make a unilateral decision and shut out such ‘non-maskers,’ while those who refuse to wear a mask should not be so close-minded and adamant about it,” he said. “Both sides should meet halfway to avoid trouble in the pandemic.”

(This article was written by Atsushi Kawada, Kenji Tsuji and Kumiko Yamane.)