Photo/Illutration Participants practice smiling in Tokyo’s Kita Ward on May 7. (Reina Kitamura)

Thirty-seven people, including the elderly, took a smiling lesson to prepare for taking off their masks in public following three years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The instruction was held in the Akabane district in Tokyo’s Kita Ward on May 7, the day before the reclassification of COVID-19 to a less-severe category that includes the seasonal flu.

“With mask wearing having become the norm, people have had fewer opportunities to smile, and more and more people have developed a complex about it,” said Keiko Kawano, 49, the smile trainer who served as the instructor for the lesson.

“Moving and relaxing the facial muscles is the key to making a good smile,” she said.

Participants used hand mirrors to check their smiles.

“Smiles are essential for maskless communication,” said Yasuko Watarai from Kita Ward, who participated in the lesson. “I want to apply what I learned today at volunteer activities and other gatherings.”

Some feel a need to rehearse their smiles, with more people requesting individual lessons since the end of last year.

After news of the COVID-19 reclassification began in February, requests for lessons rose 4.5 times compared to the previous year, Kawano said.

Whether to wear a mask began being left up to the individual on March 13.

“Smiling not only makes a good impression on others and facilitates communication but also has the effect of making yourself feel more positive,” Kawano said. “I want people to spend time consciously smiling for their (physical) and mental well-being.”

The Akabane elderly relief center organized the smile lesson.