Japan is often synonymous with ideas of not only politeness but also cleanliness, with the global pandemic bringing greater attention to its culture of wearing facemasks. Since most Japanese were accustomed to wearing them before the outbreak of coronavirus, it’s also been credited with helping to reduce the country’s spread of infection.
So, why are masks are a common sight in Japan? And what other hygiene customs are widely practiced there?
Before the Spanish flu (1918-20) hit Japan and prompted the widespread popularity of wearing masks, they were mainly used to prevent miners from inhaling dust at coal sites. Today, masks are mainly worn out of courtesy to others, as well as to avoid catching illnesses. This level of consideration may seem like a simple act of social harmony (wa和), and cleanliness is at the spiritual heart of Shinto and Zen Buddhism. But it also has practical reasons quite specific to Japan. Taking sick leave, for example, is still workplace taboo for fear of burdening your colleagues. Japan is also a hot, very humid breeding ground for bacteria most of the year!
There is other hygiene etiquette unique to Japan, from handling only crisp banknotes and money trays during transactions to holding on to your rubbish until you find an elusive bin. An awareness of cleanliness is introduced from an early age, with neighbour clean-ups and schools even including daily cleaning times as part of students’ schedules. And, much like the custom of removing one’s shoes before entering someone’s home, students also leave their shoes in lockers every morning, before changing into trainers.
What do you think of these–yay or nay... too much or just right?