During yesterday's annual battery of medical exams, I conducted a spontaneous survey about masks with my internist, cardiologist, neurologist, dermatologist, ophthalmologist and dentist. Did they truly believe, I asked, that wearing cloth face masks was viable protection against the coronavirus? My dentist shrugged (which I took to mean maybe, or .5). The rest concurred: “Face masks are here to stay,” just like in Japan from the Meiji Era (1868–1912) to this day.
“Get used to it,” said one doctor.
“It is a mystery that masks were not adopted in U.S. cities decades ago,” said another. As to why their use did not become routine after the 1918 Spanish flu, my dermatologist reasoned that “Wearing face masks is an issue of vanity,” adding, “I would not be surprised if people believed it was a stigma too.” In hospitals wearing surgical masks is the most natural thing in the world; on the street, however, until recently it was like wearing a scarlet letter.
In one pandemic swoop, masks are now the rule not the exception. Stylish fashion and novelty masks are for sale everywhere from corner vendors to high-end haberdasheries. Designers are cranking them out and textile manufacturers are working overtime.
Despite the benefits, mandatory and strongly suggested mask wearing has had unintended political consequences in the United States (and in countries like Germany and England). The politicization of mask-as-symbol-of-government-overreach or left wing-medical-conspiracy foster grave health risks and violent social and racist confrontations. Why is mask wearing held to the same standard as preserving Second Amendment gun rights? This is the American paradox about freedom itself. Many of the same anti-maskers attack a woman’s right to choose, deny same-sex marriage and continue racial and gender inequality all in the name of some skewed concept of freedom. Is the herd really that ignorant? Is the president of the free world truly unable to differentiate freedom from fear?
Mask wearing has, nonetheless, become a widespread necessity. It is a blank slate for graphic, product and fashion designers too. I foresee masks for all seasons with the same array of trendy designs as are emblazoned on backpacks, phone cases and all the rest of relatively cheap personalized functional merchandize that is available today. Call it Covid-19 entrepreneurship.
Mask wearing simply takes getting used to (like skirts for men?). When I visited Tokyo ten years ago, it was both surreal and comical to see, for the first time, masks worn in all manner of public places. I was so fascinated that I wrote the following for Design Observer:
“In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, you may recall seeing scores of surgical face-mask-wearing passersby navigating their ways through the dense futuristic metropolis that is a cross between Tokyo and LA. It always struck me as odd—yet somewhat comforting—that in the future regular folks would protect themselves and others in such a way from the ravages of germs and the inevitability of disease.
Living in New York City, where people have a tendency to sneeze without even covering their mouths, I figured the mass employ of protective face masks in the streets and on public transportation was a utopian fantasy. So, I was totally surprised to find on my first trip to Tokyo that not only is it the custom to wear such masks everywhere, it's big business too, with a nod to graphic design.
I have a proclivity for obsession and I quickly became obsessed with finding where, and how, the Tokyo natives obtained their masks and why, in fact, they wore them at the expense, I thought, of looking quite eerie. I soon learned that what’s eerie to some is decidedly natural for many. According to my calculations, one out of every five people from all social strata, age groups and genders wore them in virtually every public circumstance. I found a logical preponderance on the streets, especially in the crowded Shibuya and Ginza districts, and on the overstuffed mass transit trains and buses, but also in fine hotels and restaurants (while eating they were placed awkwardly under the chin and looked like drool cups). I even saw one gentleman comically, albeit seriously, smoking a cigarette through one.
Although some people wore the masks because they had colds or were afraid of catching them (and bird flu was a real fear), the majority of wearers are actually allergic to the cedar pollen that has become so annoyingly common in Japan since the end of World War II. Massive deforestation during and after the war was compensated for by thousands of cedar plantings, which unbeknownst to the agrarians at the time, gave off potent pollen on a par with ragweed in the United States. Apparently, the surgical masks, which cover nose and mouth, considerably reduce the intake of the allergens. What’s more, since blowing one’s nose in public is considered bad form, any reduction of sneezing is as much a question of manners as hygiene. (Interesting, though, tissue packages with advertising, for everything from girly shows to currency exchange, is one of the most common promotional giveaways on the street.) But back to obsessions: For the few days I was working in Tokyo I made it my mission to buy as many face mask packages as I could find.
I found them in the numerous 7-Eleven and Lawson convenience stores on virtually every street corner, hanging next to the “white business shirts” and near the white umbrellas. The masks routinely came in silvery mylar packages, usually with a sky blue overall tinge, but also in pink (for the ladies). One was labeled “High Tech Breath Moistener” and was recommended for flying (not a bad idea); another one was promoted as being usable for seven days (though that would give me pause). A few were designed especially for sleeping children, and some, with various layers and baffles, were more technically complex than others. On the back of each package were detailed diagrams on how to use the masks, and also how germs—usually presented as little balls of florescent color—were blocked from entering the respiratory passages. The typography is rather clunky in the commercial Japanese style, but entirely appropriate for the mass nature of the product.
What I liked most, however, was how soft and comforting the packages felt. Despite or because of the smooth foil/mylar wrapping you could sense the soothing essence of the product inside. What was also intriguing is the number of different brands. In my brief shopping spree I found 10, each with different hygienic attributes, but I’m sure there are more.
When I returned to New York, I visited my local surgical supply store to see if anything comparable was sold here. The counter person did show me the surgical masks, but they were in drab medicinal packages (near the rubber gloves) designed not for the general public but for healthcare professionals. I doubt, of course, that face masks will ever be as big here as that other Japanese import, transistor radios. Americans may like protective gear, but covering one’s face with a mask has gloomy and sinister connotations (what’s more, Homeland Security would probably ban it). But if there were ever an opportunity, I’d be interested to see ho
w differently we’d design the packages and the masks too. And I wonder what we’d call them—“Face Off,” “GermMasque,” “CoffProof?”
What a difference ten years make, right?