I was watching a documentary called World War II in Color and HD when I noticed that some pre-WWII footage of Japanese people getting off a train showed a man and woman wearing face masks. I thought masks were quite a modern thing here, so I was surprised and looked up the history of masks in Japan. It actually turns out that they’ve been used for almost a century.
Masks were first made in Japan in 1879, and were originally for use in industry. They were not the disposable type that are common today, and they were black or blue so that they did not show the dirt. The masks were built on wire frames and were not very comfortable. During these years, however, they were not common and were worn mostly by factory workers.
There was a worldwide flu pandemic between 1918 and 1920, and it arrived in Japan around 1919. Interestingly, it was the H1N1 Virus, the same bug which made headlines again in 2009, that gave rise to cold masks. The flu epidemic killed between 50 and 100 million people around the world, and 390,000 people in Japan. Masks became common in many countries, including Japan.
The Japanese government put up scary posters like this one. It says, “Beware of cold-causing germs! You’re risking your life if you don’t wear a mask!”
There was so much demand for the masks that makers could not keep up with it, and decreased the quality of their products in order to increase their production. After the epidemic, masks remained popular, and designs were improved. The wire frames were replaced with celluloid and the filters were made more effective.
In 1934, there was another big influenza scare, and masks became even more popular. Every time there was another outbreak, they gained in popularity, and the quality and comfort became better.
After World War II, when Japan began planting huge forests of cedar trees, it caused an epidemic of pollen allergies. Today, almost 30 percent of people suffer from hay fever, making masks even more popular.
One other reason that people wear masks is Japan’s guilt-based morality system. People don’t want to give other people colds, but they feel they have to come to work. They don’t let their co-workers down, so they wear the masks in order not to give other people their germs. However, the WHO warns that there is no evidence that masks stop the spread of disease in community settings, and that using them improperly (which pretty much everyone in Japan does when they take them off repeatedly) can actually be more dangerous than not wearing one.
History of cold masks with lots of old masks, ads, and illustrations (in Japanese): http://www.tpa-kitatama.jp/museum/museum_06.html
History of cold masks (in Japanese): http://www.mask.co.jp/osato/mamechishiki/rekishi01.htm
WHO information about masks: http://www.who.int/csr/resources/publications/Adviceusemaskcommunity.pdf