Photo/Illutration Children wear a mask in Kyoto in August 2020. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, most Japanese had little problem with wearing a mask unlike the stubborn resistance found in many parts of Europe and the United States.

Now, Japanese researchers think the differences in cultural acceptance may be traced back to infancy and the way language is understood by watching the speaker's mouth or eyes. 

“Tendencies nurtured during infancy become the origin of differences in daily activities among adults,” said Kaoru Sekiyama, a professor of cognitive science at Kyoto University, who led the researchers. 

The group studied 120 Japanese children aged from 6 months to 3 years and observed the direction of their gaze.

Past studies showed that Japanese adults mainly focus on the eyes of a person speaking during a conversation, while native English speakers in Europe and North America tend to let their eyes linger on the mouth.

Covering that particular part--eyes or mouth--creates anxiety among those participating in the conversation.

In fact, many people tend to don a pair of sunglasses outside in Europe and North America, but wearing a mask is not as popular as it is in Japan.

People look at different parts of the face of the speaker because of the structural differences in the Japanese and English languages.

As the Japanese language does not have many vowels and consonants, there is little assistance provided to comprehension by reading lips. 

In Japanese, there is a saying that "the eyes speak as much as the mouth." People mind-read the speaker’s emotion and nuance from the eyes.

But in English, which has many consonants, speakers move their mouths in various ways. It is easier to accurately grasp what the speaker is saying by looking at his or her mouth.

According to studies conducted in Europe and North America, babies and infants who are 1 to 2 months old and still learning to talk mainly look at the speaker’s eyes.

But after five months or so, they tend to train their eyes on the speaker’s mouth.

So Sekiyama’s group decided to observe which part of the speaker’s face the 120 Japanese babies and infants would look at through a screen.

They said the result was surprising: Babies mainly looked at the speaker’s eyes.

For those who are about 2 years old, they spent more time looking at the speaker’s mouth.

But for those who are about 3 years old, they once again tend to look at the speaker’s eyes.

It was not like babies and infants always focused on the speaker’s eyes, nor were they the same as babies and infants in Europe and North America.

They once start by focusing on the speaker’s mouth and return to their initial habit of focusing on the speaker’s eyes.

The researchers also found that children who know more words tend to look at the speaker’s eyes more, because they do not need to look at the speaker’s mouth.