Japan’s smaller contraction masks extent of underlying weakness

Japan Dispatch

In America, masks have become a weapon in the culture wars. In Japan, wearing one is no big deal, and deaths accept stayed low.

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TOKYO — When the coronavirus arrived in Nihon, people did what they commonly practise: They put on masks.

Confront coverings are nothing new hither. During flu and hay fever seasons, trains are crowded with commuters one-half-subconscious behind white surgical masks. Employees with colds, worried about the stigma of missing work, throw one on and soldier into the office. Masks are even used, my hairdresser once told me, by women who don’t want to bother putting on makeup.

In the United States, where masks but recently arrived on the scene, they accept been a less comfortable fit — becoming an emblem in the civilisation wars. A vocal minority asserts that nobody can forcefulness anyone to put a mask on. Protesters have harassed mask-wearing reporters. The president himself has tried to avoid existence seen in one.

As Nippon has confounded the world by avoiding the sort of mass death from coronavirus seen in the Usa, I began to wonder whether the cultural affinity for masks helped explain some of this success. It likewise got me thinking about the evolution in my own feelings about face coverings.

A decade agone, earlier we moved to Tokyo when I became The New York Times bureau primary, my husband, two children and I visited Japan to see family and friends. I had picked up a cough on the plane, and my Japanese godfather pointedly dropped into a convenience store to purchase me a parcel of masks.

Shame on me, but I declined to wear one — they seemed unsightly and uncomfortable.

Fast forrad to early this year, when news of a foreign virus started emerging from Mainland china, and Japan soon reported its first case.

Advice on masks that I was reading from international experts was mixed, if not outright skeptical. The surgeon general of the United States implored the public in a tweet to “STOP Ownership MASKS!” The Centers for Disease Command and Prevention initially said it was non necessary to wear one if I wasn’t ill.

Yet, living in Tokyo, I had grown accustomed to seeing them everywhere. I decided it was meliorate to purchase some for me and my family. Past then, masks were sold out in well-nigh Japanese drugstores, merely the Tokyo bureau of The Times managed to procure a small-scale supply that nosotros had to ration.

I was sometimes dislocated virtually when to wear one, though I did then when reporting nigh the Diamond Princess, the cruise transport that was the site of a large coronavirus outbreak, or when I attended crowded news conferences in unventilated rooms.

It took some getting used to. The mask made my glasses fog. I didn’t like the feeling of my own breath on my face.

But I’yard now a convert, especially since Tokyo was placed nether a state of emergency in mid-April. I bought handmade material confront coverings from a Facebook friend in Okinawa. We launder them daily and line them with coffee filters. Even though the emergency announcement was lifted in late May, I all the same won’t let anyone in my family leave our apartment without putting on a mask.

With paper masks sold out everywhere, the Japanese government sent cloth masks in the mail in Apr. The initiative, which cost about $400 million, became the butt of jokes, when people discovered the masks were as well pocket-size to embrace most adults’ mouths and noses.

The masks became a symbol of failings in the government’s coronavirus response. In the early months of the pandemic, Japan seemed non to follow much of the conventional epidemiological wisdom, deliberately restricting testing and not ordering a lockdown.

Even so a feared spike in cases and deaths has non materialized. Japan has reported more than 17,000 infections and just over 900 deaths, while the United States, with a population roughly 2 and a half times as large, is approaching i.9 million cases and 110,000 deaths.

“Nippon, I think a lot of people agree, kind of did everything wrong, with poor social distancing, karaoke bars still open and public transit packed most the zone where the worst outbreaks were happening,” Jeremy Howard, a researcher at the University of San Francisco who has studied the use of masks, said of the country’s early response. “Only the one thing that Japan did right was masks.”

Simply ane of Nippon’southward about visible responses has been near-universal mask wearing, seen here equally a responsible matter to do to protect oneself and others, and as a modest toll to pay to be able to resume some semblance of normalcy.

Japan’s experience with masks goes dorsum hundreds of years. Mining workers started using them during the Edo period, between the 17th and 19th centuries, to prevent inhalation of dust. The masks were often made from the lurid of plums, said Kazunari Onishi, writer of “The Dignity of Masks” and an acquaintance professor at St. Luke’south International University in Tokyo.

Dr. Onishi said that early in the 20th century, the Japanese viewed masks every bit unattractive, just were persuaded to habiliment them during the 1918 flu pandemic. More recently, the Japanese public has used masks during the SARS and MERS outbreaks — which also left Nihon relatively unscathed — as well as to protect against pollution and pollen.

During the current pandemic, scientists have found a correlation between high levels of mask-wearing — whether as a thing of culture or policy — and success in containing the virus.

“I think there is definitely bear witness coming out of Covid that Japan, besides every bit other countries which practice mask-wearing, tend to do much better in flattening the curve,” said Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology at Yale.

The scientific prove on whether a mask protects the wearer from infection is mixed. Merely experiments prove that masks can be constructive in blocking the emission of respiratory droplets that may contain the virus, even when someone has no symptoms of illness. And there is some bear witness that infected people with no symptoms tin still transmit the coronavirus.

A study published last month suggested that just talking can launch thousands of small aerosol.

“Wearing a simple material mask could significantly block spoken communication droplets from existence released,” 2 of the study’due south authors, Philip Anfinrud and Adriaan Bax of the National Institutes of Health, wrote in an e-mail.

Dekai Wu, a professor of computer science and applied science at Hong Kong Academy of Science and Technology, has modeled the potential for mass mask-wearing to significantly reduce infections.

While it may be possible to establish only correlation, not causation, he said, “if the downside is naught, and the upside is huge, then you take the bet.”

Still, near scientists say, masks lone are not enough; social distancing is as well needed.

“Many people recall that just roofing their oral fissure and nose is plenty,” Dr. Onishi said. “If they wear a mask, they think they can go to crowded areas, only that is still very unsafe.”

My family and I have seen that kind of thinking in activity. On a recent weekend, we masked upwardly and went for a bicycle ride in Tokyo. After miles of coasting downwards repose residential streets and along a flower-lined path, we took a turn into a surprisingly crowded shopping arcade.

Equally we wove through the crowds, I spotted a long, tightly packed line for coffee at a cafe. Inside a grocery store, nobody was paying much attention to the distance between customers. At a food stand up, a huddle formed around the server’south window.

But nearly everyone was wearing a mask.



Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

Hikari Hida contributed reporting.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/06/world/asia/japan-coronavirus-masks.html

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