The Break Down: Surgical Masks and Convenience Stores

This year on Otaku Lounge, I wanted to introduce something a bit different. Along with the usual anime-centric content and the new Life in Japan in Photos post series I started last August, it occurred to me that people might want to know more about very specific topics or questions relating to Japan – not in relation to anime or general pop culture necessarily (although that’s fine too), but more in terms of everyday living.

I’ve started this post off with some questions friends and family members have asked me directly while visiting me in Japan, but the aim of this new series is to take suggestions from readers of Otaku Lounge as well. So if you have a Japan-related question you want answered, by all means let me know in the comments, or else feel free to contact me directly via the blog’s private contact form. If I don’t already know the answer myself, I’m sure my Japanese friends or co-workers would be more than happy to help shed some light on the topic. Unless the answer gets particularly long, I’ll likely be answering 2 or 3 questions per post.

Why do so many people in Japan wear surgical masks?

Coming from a culture where people don’t wear surgical masks unless they’re performing a surgery or dealing with biohazardous chemicals, it was pretty strange to come to school one day and see that Every. Single. Person was wearing one. Every student. Every teacher. The admin guy. Literally everyone. Had there been some crazy virus outbreak from a lab? Perhaps a radioactive incident? The answer I got: “Oh, two kids came down with the flu.”

As I quickly gleaned, surgical masks are very commonly worn in Japan not just by sick people, but also by perfectly healthy people so as to prevent them from getting sick too. If even just a couple of people are sick at a school or in an office building, the chance of everyone else also donning a surgical mask is pretty likely. It’s also not at all rare for a school to literally order that all students and teachers wear a mask during flu season. (Also, while my own country’s reaction to someone coming down with the flu is typically along the lines of, “Oh, that’s too bad”, in Japan people go into serious panic mode and immediately quarantine that shit.) Moreover, to be seen coughing and sneezing a lot and yet not be wearing a surgical mask – even if it’s just due to allergies rather than a transmittable illness of some kind – is usually deemed socially inconsiderate at best, and downright rude at worst.

However, there are numerous other reasons for people to wear surgical masks. They’re extremely shy and looking for any way to avoid unnecessary social interaction. They’re self-conscious about their physical appearance and are going out without first applying make-up. They’re walking or cycling to work or school in the morning and it’s cold outside. They’re using their colourful, patterned, or character/brand-logoed mask as a legitimate fashion accessory. Yes, all of the above are seen as perfectly valid and commonplace reasons to wear a surgical mask in Japan, no matter who or where you are in the country.

What’s with the prevalence of convenience stores in Japan?

Convenience stores in Japan aren’t just stores – they’re more like a national institution. But why, you might ask? Aren’t supermarkets cheaper? Do people actually need 3 convenience stores on the same block? Does there really have to be a Lawson right across the street from another Lawson?

While convenience stores in my own country (commonly known as ‘dairies’) are fairly small and don’t tend to sell much other than food – and mostly only pricey junk food at that – I learned extremely quickly once moving to Japan that convenience stores here are genuinely convenient. I’m not just talking about the reasonably-priced food, much of which is quite fresh and ranges from your typical chocolate bars and packets of potato chips to entire and surprisingly delicious meals like pasta, curry, and more traditional Japanese fare that you can ask to be warmed up on the spot. I’m not even talking about the ability to also buy basic cleaning, hygiene, beauty, electronic, stationary, clothing, or entertainment products.

You can also do the following at almost any convenience store in Japan at any time of the day or night: pick up packages that you didn’t want delivered to your house, pay for and post your own mail, pay your phone, electricity and gas bills, purchase tickets for public transport, sports events, theme parks, concerts and museums, photocopy, scan and fax documents (faxing rather than emailing still being exceedingly common in Japan), access free Wi-Fi, use the 24/7 ATMs (nearly all other ATMs in Japan close in the evenings), and use ready-boiled water to eat your recently-purchased cup ramen on the go. I’ll also add that convenience stores are always well-cooled in summer and well-heated in winter, and that I’ve never once been given a dirty look for using a convenience store bathroom without buying anything first – and yes, those bathrooms are generally kept pretty spotless.

Finally, lest I forget, convenience stores in certain areas here, particularly in more rural locations, are often designated hangout spots for coworkers to openly chat with each other about their work woes (usually while copiously smoking), or if they’re kids, socialize outside of school hours – the latter so much so that one school I taught at actually banned kids from going there at all during exam period unless accompanied by a parent.

In short, convenience stores are so prevalent in Japan because they offer a hugely wide range of services, are not hideously overpriced, and are usually open 24/7 in even the most rural of areas. Moreover, in a city like Tokyo with a metropolis population of close to 14 million people, many of whom work from first thing in the morning until very late at night, these convenience stores are not a commodity; they’re a truly essential part of everyday life.

Question(s) of the post: First, for those readers living outside of Japan, do you personally ever wear a surgical mask, and if so why? Second, are convenience stores actually convenient where you live, and how often do you typically find yourself visiting one?

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26 thoughts on “The Break Down: Surgical Masks and Convenience Stores

  1. I think this is an incredibly interesting new section you’re incorporating! Even though I now live in Japan, I often forget that these things seem strange outside of it. I think my favorite reason (that I didn’t see you list) I’ve seen high school students wear surgical masks at all times is to hide facial piercings they’re not suppose to have. I keep forgetting that in my own high school years I had a facial piercing and no one batted an eye but in Japan I forget that they’re not allowed to have any piercings!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s true, masks are sometimes used to disguise certain things like facial piercings – as you point out, a huge no-no in Japanese schools and frowned upon by plenty of people just in general. I’ve only ever worked at relatively small and very rural schools myself though, so none of the students I’ve ever come across would probably dare to even think about getting any kind of facial piercing. I used to have a nose piercing myself during my university days and when I told a few of my kids this, their reaction was literally to say “Wow! Wild!”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have my ears pierced so I get a lot of the girls asking how long I’ve had them, if I had other piercings. I mostly see them with high school kids, even though I too am pretty rural. They usually get them only a month away from graduation so nothing too terrible. It’s so interesting to see how two different areas in Japan respond to this!

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        • Honestly I think even ear piercings would get a very immediate and very negative reaction at the schools I teach at, even right before graduation – though that said, I do not teach high school level students, so maybe that’s one of the major differences. The kids have definitely noticed my ear piercings as well, as I have multiple (albeit purposefully understated for work) piercings there.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I wear face mask whenever I’m travelling, especially when it’s somewhere in the city, because I hate engine and cigarette (esp this!!!) smoke.

    Where we live, there aren’t any convenient stores. However, around the apartment I’m staying in for uni, there are a looot. But the supermarkets and the wet market are near, too, so I prefer going to those than convenient stores. Unless I craved for ice cream/chocolate/coffee while on the way and I’m too lazy to walk back to any of the fast food restaurants/Starbucks outside the campus.

    Anyway, this is a nice section you’re starting! Looking forward to the future ones! 🙂

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    • That’s a good point about the cigarette smoke! It bothers me too, especially since it’s such a pervasive smell in certain locations, like outside convenience stores here or around the outside areas of train stations/subways.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s true. Although having said that, most forms of crime in general in Japan is quite low, at least in comparison to many other countries. Interesting, given it’s still such a hugely cash-based society, so you’d think theft would be way more rampant at places like convenience stores.

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  3. I wear surgical masks everytime I’m out of my house or may I say, all the time.I’ve worn it for a long time now.True, it does keep one safe from flu and other transferable infections and disease, smokes etc. Personally, I wear it out of habit and bc I don’t feel comfortable showing my face generally. So it’s like a habit I guess.To add to this , I work in a chemistry lab so ,I need mask at work too so yeah.It works all around for me.

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    • Fair enough. Yeah, I’ve noticed a lot of people here don’t feel comfortable showing their face in public, so wearing a surgical mask gives them an extra layer of anonymity.

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  4. Surgical mask yes, because of the ongoing drought dust storms have become incredibly common (like blocking out the sun dust storms that last hours) and after one severe nasal infection due to being outdoors during a dust storm I wasn’t going for round two. Neither was anyone else and the last dust storm that blew in saw most of the people I work with finding a mask real quick.
    Alas no convenience store in town and even when I lived closer to the city really not a thing to shop at due to extremely high prices.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, dust storms is a good one. We don’t get those much here (if ever), although of course there is just general air pollution that people in the bigger cities might want to protect themselves from.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nope, never worn a mask and think *maybe* seen one person wear one outside a hospital. (I’m in US.)
    Convenience stores (often called party stores around here) are rather common around here. Typically I only ever go inside one to pay for gas or once in a while to buy an Icee/freeze drink in the summer when they’re on sale.

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  6. Interesting questions you’ve raised. Coming from Asia (but currently residing in Canada), I find that I often want to wear surgical masks when I’m sick, but decide it’s too unusual to here. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to signal to others when you’re sick, and avoid unnecessary talking/interactions. It’s interesting to hear that some introverts would wear it for this very reason, and I totally get it!

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    • That’s very true. I don’t enjoy the feel of a surgical mask on my face at all, but it is nice to have that unspoken signal – like “I’m sick, please don’t judge my voice for being raspy and my brain for not being totally with it today” kind of thing.

      Liked by 1 person

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  8. Very interesting series. I have little to say, except that I wouldn’t want to wear surgical masks, as I generally don’t like wearing any accessories (including hats, scarfs, gloves, etc.).

    As for questions: I’m sort of curious about the range of things they call “pan” in Japan. Some of that looks more like… a pie? (Here, me not being a native speaker of English causes additional problems.) A “melon pan”, for example, looks more like some sort of sweet pastry to me than anything I’d recognise as bread.

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    • Same here with the not liking accessories overly much. Even most forms of jewelry is too much for me – although given where I live, sometimes I’m either forced to wear a mask or else be regarded as gross and socially inconsiderate.

      Melon pan is definitely what I’d just call bread in that there’s usually nothing inside it. And while it’s very fluffy and shaped like… well, a melon apparently, it does still have the usual bread-like consistency as well. It is quite sweet though, as even the plain version of melon pan (you can also get varieties like chocolate) has some kind of sugar sprinkles on top of it. So taste-wise, think more along the lines of a donut I guess.

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      • Oh, I’d totally have to wear a face mask in Japan during pollen season (If what I’m allergic to grows where I am).

        Thanks for the info about the melon pan. With that discription I still find it hard to see it as a “bread”, but it’s a little easier now to imagine it, at least.

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  11. In the USA, covering your face with a mask of any kind for any reason can get you beat up and even arrested. There’s people who actively go around physically and verbally hassling people wearing masks; they think they are making america great again by doing so. Of course you won’t hear about this on mainstream news such as Fox.

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    • I don’t know anything about that, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me to know that some people view face masks as threatening. In most Western cultures, masks worn out in public are seen as being used mainly for criminal purposes, after all.

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