Blade Runner, scores of surgical face-mask-wearing passersby navigating their ways through the dense futuristic metropolis that is a cross between Tokyo and LA. 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. " /> Blade Runner, scores of surgical face-mask-wearing passersby navigating their ways through the dense futuristic metropolis that is a cross between Tokyo and LA. 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. " />

Steven Heller | Essays

Japanese Face Masks

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 people would protect themselves and others in such a way from the ravages of germs and the inevitability of disease. But living in New York City, where people have a tendency to sneeze without even covering their mouths, I figured the mass employ of surgical face masks in the streets and on public transportation was simply 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 over-stuffed 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 contagion from bird flu was a real fear), the majority of wearers are actually allergic to the cedar pollen that has become so annoyingly common 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 (I learned from experience), 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 advertising give-a-ways 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 (everything being so uniform). 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 breathing 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 ten, 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 whether 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 how differently we’d design the packages and the masks too. And I wonder what we’d call them — “Face Off,” “GermMasque,” “CoffProof?”

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design

Comments [41]

Interesting....thanks for sharing.

Very interesting article! I will be going to Japan next February, so I will be looking out for these.

I always wondered why they liked wearing them, i guess masks are easier for them than taking pills

Here in the cultural mosaic that is Toronto I see people with masks (and giant sun visors) regularly. I must admit I've never put much thought into where they could be purchased. Interesting article.

Alex, I believe it's called preventative maintenance, and probably easier on one's liver.

the only thing about these masks, and (i wonder if they have made some real advances -- doubtful) i had to wear one for work for 6 months, and they were super uncomfortable... if i could get them in black, with a master shredder graphic i might be into it though...

I was in Japan this past Christmas and couldn't help but notice the face mask trend. It was very interesting how mask wearers came in all stripes — whether it was healthy looking salary men, children, even the rockabilly punks in Harajuku.

You would never see a whole group of masker wearers. Usually there was one in a group of non-mask wearers. Strange.

Even stranger — and far more common — were couples where there was one mask wearer. They would be holding hands, walking and talking together, yet one of them inevitably appeared to be afflicted by some terrible disease.
marc Levitt

That's funny Steven, I just documented this phenomenon in my photo journal of Japan.

We came up with the personal calculation that 30% of the population at any age or socioeconomic status wears masks. We even joined in the experience ourselves—when in Rome.
Sheri L Koetting

masks for design conscious women are now hitting the market(s)::

I wouldn't call this a trend... since Japan goes through trends like crazy. They've been doing this for years and years.

What I find really interesting about Japanese packaging in general (and which we sort of see in these mask packages), is the full-blown gender-demographic marketing. I've heard there're similar items in the U.K., including something called "Man-Sized" Kleenex, which just slew me when I saw a picture of it.

I think America tends to avoid specifically saying "this is guy stuff, this is girl stuff" and tries to convey it more subtly (underhandedly?) by the packaging design alone.

Also, it's not uncommon for these face masks to be worn by baseball bat-wielding bokuzoku, or Japanese street bike gangs, as a bizarre spin on the old West handkerchief mask. A-yup.


if they came in black i'd be first to purchase. we have a huge asian population in Vancouver, and i've seen quite a few face masks around downtown.
Vesper de Vil

guess white/light blue or green is associated with hygiene and black, err, ninjas/criminals?

it makes perfect sense where people live, work, travel en mass in close proximity of one another.

Yes, as Andrew stated, face masks have become a rather normal sight in Toronto – first on bike couriers, but I have seen them over the past five years on people just strolling about (and not necessarily those of Japanese background). Having asthma, I sometimes think it'd be good for me to wear them, but I'd like them to be fashionable as well, so its interesting to see how they are being marketed elsewhere. Wish they had more than a hospital package here (both inside and out).
Ingrid Paulson

Zdraste! Vot takoi vot u vas horoshiy sait. Spasibki.

Hmmm. I guess you didn't see any of the Hello Kitty face masks ... I understand you can get them with other graphics, too.
marian bantjes

Interesting insight. It used to be made of white clothes so you had to wash them. It became popular since they started making them with paper, and made it disposal so it's clean. (like a diaper... make sense..) Things that was new to me in the U.S. was antibacterial gel...
Tokyo Observer

I think the American market would require Celebrity endorsement and a certain level of how should we say, bedazzlement?

Im getting the GOLD foil mask, I have heard Lil Wayne's is real gold!
josh nespodzany

I love how the pinkish package with the transparent mask, showing lips underneath, feels like panty-hose packaging. They're really targeting a specific demo there.
Jason A. Tselentis

I was in Japan for the 1964 Olympics. Guess what?! It was weird to see men in business suits wearing masks. Then and now.

As I see it, there are three ways these masks can be implemented into daily American use:

1. An extremely thorough and covert guerrilla marketing campaign that puts thousands of (beautiful) people with these masks on the streets for at least a month, denying any affiliation with such a cause. At the same time the products and their packaging should be introduced into...


3. Pull Claritin and all other allergy medicine off the market -or- undo all the pharmecuetical advertising from the past 40 years

During the summer I have seen Japanese on campus in this US university town carry sun umbrellas. They are very porcelain.

I must look like the lowest class farmer to them.

(2nd image from top and left)
Thinking back, we all had face masks for sanitary purpose when we served school meals... it's a part of education to help each other so kids serve food, and clean classroom together. Start with kids in school...
Tokyo Observer

This trend has been going for many years already in urban Asian cities, especially in the Japanese culture or Taiwan, because most of the people drive a motorcycle or scooter, so they wear face mask to prevent breathing in polluted air from car in front of them. I think people living in urban cities in Asia pay more attention to the hygiene problem, since the SARS outbreak was really making people to realize the importance of being clean and prevent illness. As the youtube video I found, Link ,which shows how demanding of having a face mask on during the SARS precaution period. Plus the air pollution is way worse in Asia compare to most of the US cities, maybe except NYC.

the youtube link

this is really cool stuff. it's so hard to find a single place where such great material is converged, thanks.
check this out.
dayo fawehinmi

I always assumed the tissues they handed out everywhere were for use in the public bathrooms

Mass Appeal had this cover several years ago - Murakami/Vuitton mask with matching visor.
If there's a market for it, there will be a designer (read: more expensive/exclusive) version of it.
Eli Neugeboren

These masks are not actually worn so much for personal protection as a symbol and act of humility and honor.

Since you are constantly in close quarters with others in Japan, you can easily spread your germs, and to make another person sick is considered highly undesirable. They wear the masks so that they do not spread their germs to others, so that they are not a burden upon others.

Masks do little to help the wearer. Air still goes in through the top and bottom, and is not filtered by the mask. The purpose of them is to catch the natural spittle that comes out of one's mouth when talking or breathing through it, to prevent the spread of disease.

Yes I visited Japan 35 years ago as a kid and still remember seeing these surgical face masks. Not for pollution protection but worn by those with a cough or cold. So this has been going on for quite some time....
Kevin Perera

Thank goodness for people with a "proclivity for obsession". I've always been fascinated with the masks phenomenon in Japan, but never really spent time investigating about it.

I first started recognizing the excellence of Japanese face masks when I saw a lady wearing a custom Louis Vuitton multicolor mask on the cover of a magazine.
Chris Burns

Apparantly these masks are used TextnotText as a measure to not get a 'disease' but instead to prevent TextotherTextpeople from getting TextyourTextdisease. i.e. you wear it when your sick so that you don't infect everyone else.

I at first found it a bit disconcerting that people would be that scared of getting sick, but its quite nice (and considered) that it is the opposite.

I love the Japanese, Hong Kong is top of my wish list for 2009
Sizzle Creative Agency

Er, what does Hong Kong have to do with Japan?


There are actually several different reasons for the masks, they vary from person to person. I've seen all cases in Japan.

1) to avoid giving germs to others
2) to avoid getting germs yourself
3) to avoid pollution
4) to avoid pollen in the spring

Not Fred

so wait… is there a toxic medical dump for the used masks?

I really like the Pokemon kids' masks.
Japan is a really great place for any designer to visit. Everyone should go. It's like a parallel universe.
Lizette Vernon

When I first saw these in photos of Japan years ago, I had an idea for printing decorative patterns on them. I suppose it might have made me enormously wealthy, but did I go into the designer facemask business? No I did not. I am not such a fool, but it would be nice to be a little rich. Anybody want to go halves? I do the designs, you make the masks.
Eric Hanson

Wow...kind of shocked that these things are a topic...especially with designer types...where the hell have y'all been? I was thinking that design observer observers would find this thing old hat.
Laszlo Schwartz

I'm all for masks! I wear one when it gets into the 40s, to keep my face warm, I am comfortable (as opposed to nose-sniveling miserable) and I don't give a damn who thinks it's weird. We Americans have a lot to learn from other cultures. Einar.

Man, I need one of those masks (or several) I'm one of those people who constantly get sick or suffer from allergies. And I can't take medication constantly because I become immune to it, it's happen two times. But I live in America, where would be a good place to purchase these masks. It has to be online, because I live in the middle of New Mexico, where most popular American food chains can take forever to get here.
Little Angel

I know I am pretty late on giving some input on this, but I live in Japan currently and your blog popped up while I was looking to purchase a designer facemask....

Anyways, in Japan there are many reasons why they wear masks the top four being
1. they are sick and are being courtious to others by trying to keep it to themselves
2. paranoia of getting sick
3. pollen
4. Fashion!

Many younger people here in Japan purchase designer face masks or wear the simple ones because it is now considered a fashionable. It is not uncommon to see people wearing masks with their favorite characters on them, or done up to make it look they have an animal face. It is considered quite cool here.

Also, there are more then just the boring medical ones back in the US, back last year when H1N1 was scaring everyone, my doctors office started giving out masks to anyone who was coughing, and even there you could find Disney, cute patterns and different colors.

Lastly: "Interesting though, tissue packages with advertising, for everything from girly shows to currency exchange, is one of the most common advertising give-a-ways on the street."
That is because while it is rude to blow your nose in public, it is incredibly acceptable to excuse yourself to blow your nose, in fact, it is considered very polite to leave the room to stop your sniffles or have your coughing fit (and trust me, it sucks to hold in your coughs till you can leave a room)

oh and Little Angel: your local doctor should have some to buy, but if you want some super cute ones I recommend Kimberly Clark brand. They have Disnery recommend Kimberly Clark brand. They have Disney character ones :)

Jobs | July 21