Photo/Illutration Tourists flock to Tokyo’s Asakusa district on March 13. (Takeshi Iwashita)

Peer pressure and neighborhood conditions, not government policy, will largely dictate whether Japanese people will continue wearing facemasks or abandon the protection from COVID-19, according to a survey.

The results of the survey, conducted by Taisuke Nakata, an associate professor of economics at the University of Tokyo, and Reo Takaku, an associate professor of medical economy at Hitotsubashi University, were released on March 13.

On that day, the central government adopted a new policy of letting individuals decide on their own whether to wear masks.

The survey on 1,000 people, both men and women aged between 20 and 79, showed the new policy is not a determining factor for the majority of Japanese concerning masks.

“It is highly likely that those who keep wearing the masks, even though they think it is OK to remove them, are feeling peer pressure,” Takaku said. “It is probable that many people, after realizing that the infection situation had slowed down, have continued wearing masks because they worried about what others thought.”

The two have conducted surveys every week since August 2022. The latest one covers the first week of March this year.

Throughout the half-year period, about 60 percent of respondents said they wear masks “all the time” or “most of the time” while walking on streets where there are not many pedestrians.

The figure remained about the same in the latest survey.

However, the degree of “necessity” of the masks for health reasons has changed over the period.

In the second week of January, 57 percent of respondents said “it is OK to take off the masks” on empty streets. The ratio jumped to 67 percent in the first week of March.

The associate professors said the increase was probably fueled by the government’s announcement on Jan. 20 that it would downgrade the severity level of COVID-19.

Before the announcement, in the second week of January, 33 percent said they “think it is OK to take off their masks but will keep wearing them.”

The figure rose to 45 percent in the latest survey.

Asked for factors that determine if they will wear masks, 51 percent in the latest survey cited “the infection situation in our neighborhood,” while 35 said “the mask-wearing ratio of people around me.”

Twenty-five percent said they would keep wearing masks because they “have gotten used to it.”

Only 16 percent said their mask decisions are based on the central government’s policy, while another 16 percent cited the opinions of government health experts.

“It is possible that the percentage of people wearing masks will not change drastically even after the central government’s policy changes,” Takaku said.

If more people decide not to wear masks, “an opposite peer pressure” may take effect, and more people could remove their masks even if they think they should keep them on for safety reasons, he said.

The two said they will continue the surveys until December.