Wearing Masks: what we learned from the Japanese and how it applies today

Wearing Masks: what we learned from the Japanese and how it applies today

Wearing Masks: what we learned from the Japanese and how it applies today

“Look at those Asians with their ridiculous masks. You’d think we’re all dirty”.

It’ s the reaction of a lot of Westerners when seeing Asians wearing masks in their country. Somehow it just seems a bit insulting to think that people need to be protected from us.

Back in 2016 we spent 7 weeks in Japan and learned a different perspective that totally changed the way we thought about masks.


We met “Nick” on our 2nd day in Tokyo. He was a volunteer at Tokyo Free Guides, a non-profit organization that helps first-timers get their feet on the ground in Japan (see my post on getting a Free Volunteer Guide in Tokyo).

During our day with him we noticed he would wear a mask in enclosed spaces and when taking public transit. Outside he would take the mask off and since most of our time with him was outdoors we didn’t really think twice about his mask wearing. It was after our day with him, when having a coffee, that he explained.

I’m sorry about wearing a mask. I am just getting over a cold so am being careful not to spread my germs”.

Wow. It’s not what we expected.

I found this postWhy Japanese wear masksand it corroborates what Nick said: the Japanese will often wear face masks not for themselves but to  “prevent one’s own germs or sickness from spreading in public places”. It explains that the Japanese are taught from an early age about hygiene and that keeping others from getting sick is about all about respect.

It is a philosophy that really impressed us and that we’ve never forgotten.




Today, in the midst of this pandemic, I’m reminded of the Japanese.

Nobody likes to wear a mask. Nobody. I especially hate it: I have a hard time breathing, my glasses fog up, I sweat under the mask. I suffered from asthma in my late teens/early 20’s (it was brought on by a cat I had) and I sometimes feel like I’m going to have a panic attack when I wear a mask for a long period of time.

I hate wearing a mask.

Having said that, I wear a mask because it is the #1 proven way to stay healthy during the pandemic. And when I say stay healthy, I mean for myself as well as for Lissette. If I lived in a household with other family members (especially elderly) I would be even more vigilant. Because if I get sick, I’ll spread it to others and get them sick as well. Wearing a mask is the right thing to do, no matter how much it sucks.

So, I’m just amazed by the fucking idiots who just don’t get it. The fucking idiots who talk about their “rights”, “liberty”, and their “constitutional privilege” to not have to wear masks.

They’re not just the followers of the current piece of shit that’s occupying the White House. They’re everywhere. Even in Germany, one of the most progressive places around, you have mask-less protesters denouncing Covid restrictions as an imposition to their “peace” and “freedom” and comparing Angela Merkel to Hitler.

If all those people had their own little island, then I and most people would care less what they do. If all the conspiracy-believing, non-mask wearers wanted to just carry on doing what they want that would be fine. But the problem is that those people don’t have their own private island and that they’re the ones spreading the disease to people who do take the virus seriously.

Those people are being selfish, putting their perceived rights above the greater good. They don’t care about getting other people sick.

That’s when I think back to Japan and the word “Respect”. Because if you respect others, you’ll wear a mask. It might not change your thinking: you might still not be 100% sold on the virus, you might not believe that masks are as effective as scientists tell you they are, and it might not be what your political idols tell you what to do. But it’s the proper, selfless thing to do. And really, how hard is it? Is wearing a mask that much of a sacrifice if it means that in 6 months everyone can go back to living normally? It’s not like it’s World War II and they’re sending your kids out to the countryside because the cities are being bombed every night…


So don’t be a fucking idiot. Just wear a mask



  1. Nice piece Frank. Ive been wearing masks daily for months now and im still not used to them. But it makes sense and i think people should consider them after this is all over in certain settings. Because it is about others. In Japan people are taught to think of others. Not so much in the west.

  2. Hey Frank. I just finished catching up on some of your posts, including this your latest. I have been in a fog for the past couple of weeks, glued to the election news. The stress of it, at best, was mental fatigue like I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced before. But, with that being said, I am somewhat back among the living. One of my favorite aspects of your writing is that you don’t sugar coat anything. And, really, how can one sugar coat a pandemic and the simple act of wearing a mask?

    As you know we’ve been home in the Divided States for the year of 2020. We live in this circus of chaos every. single. day. and since we’re just a hop, skip and a jump away from Washington, DC, our local news is a reflection of the national news. Let me state emphatically… Covid-19 is out of control in the US. We have a lame duck president who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the pandemic, his only concern is golfing and spewing baseless election fraud claims. His so-called pandemic task force just released a statement, for the first time in 4 months. Four months! And, because the lame duck won’t allow the administration to sign off on the presidential transition, President-elect Biden cannot move forward to put his pandemic team to work. So, we’re looking at another 2 months before we get any kind of federal support.

    The politicalization of wearing masks follows right along red and blue party lines. The lame duck has spent the past year spewing a false narrative about the virus and his followers hang on every word. It’s incredibly narcissistic. I am appalled by reports of people losing their minds because they can’t enter a business without a mask, claiming it’s against their civil rights. Well, no, it’s not.

    Here is a link to a recent story in which a nurse shared that even as patients are facing death due to Covid, they refuse to believe it is Covid. Who ever said ignorance is bliss?!


    What I find heartbreaking is that not only is the divided states divided between red and blue, this pandemic, in line with an incompetent administration, has created a rift that I believe will never heal. And, as I sit here writing this, we are listening to the news reports of 170,000 new cases every single day and 1,200 people each day are dying from Covid. Hospitals are at capacity to the point where a hospital in Reno, Nevada has converted a parking garage to a hospital ward. Health officials are encouraging (practically begging) people “not” to travel for Thanksgiving.

    But sure, don’t wear a mask, think only of yourself until such time as you’re lying in a hospital bed telling the nurses and doctors that you can’t possibly be dying of Covid.

    Wear the damn mask.

    p.s. We had our teeth cleaned last week, after 1 1/2 years.

    1. Thanks for this Patti. Earlier in the year, European news would have all these videos showing fights over masks (and toilet paper) in American grocery stores. People here just can’t understand the American attitude when it comes to this pandemic. It’s just so different to the average European attitude where the majority of people, although not happy, still support governments and scientists in the fight against the virus. Even now, after 7 months (and there’s definite Covid fatigue) I think I saw that 75% of Germans will still support another full lockdown if the government deems it necessary. In the US just getting someone to wear a mask is a fight and “real” lockdown never ever really happened in much of the US.

      Totally agree with all your analysis. Trump will bring everyone down with him because he doesn’t care and I’m still thinking it could get really ugly getting him out of the White House. Hospitals at capacity Patti?? Really?? Because some people will still tell you that it’s all fake…

      Good for you on the dental cleaning! Have to find ourselves a dentist…

  3. Hi Frank,

    Read the article you linked about Japanese wearing masks. Wearing them to protect others or oneself as well as against pollen/pollutants makes a lot of sense.

    However in a society where saving face is so important, the mask is also a way of hiding from society. Not sure the US is ready for that aspect of it. Not sure it should be …they are both very different cultures with their own strengths and weaknesses and external situations (pandemic etc) showcase the strengths and weaknesses of different systems.

    We were walking the Camino in Spain when the pandemic hit and we chose to come back to the US where we had a car and freedom of movement instead of riding it out in Spain (initial impulse). In retrospect very glad we did as we have been able to travel all over the Southwest with minimal interaction with people and crowds while taking advantage of low hotel rates and uncrowded popular spots (for ex Grand Canyon South Rim with completely empty parking lots !).

    As a full time traveling couple with an average age of 55…my own $0.02 is that Europe is great in peace time…but when shit hits the ceiling..the US provides more options than Europe where authorities seemingly apply one yardstick to the whole country. I like having options and taking responsibility for my own decisions.

    I have enjoyed reading your blog for many months now as you write with an original voice…I think I had commented earlier somewhere about hopefully also hearing your wife’s perspective on your travels (we are a full time, retired, nomadic couple so hearing from both would be doubly interesting)…hint, hint 😁.

    Best wishes for your new adventures in Spain, we are yet to see the northern and southern parts of the country… hopefully will once things open up again.


    1. Hi Michael,
      Pleasure to read your very thoughtful post. “Having options and taking responsibility for my own decisions” could be the best attitude of all, considering the confusion and general lack of fundamental truth of how illness, toxins, viruses, bad things actually operate. Mea culpa, I’m no genius. Just trying to ride out the storm like everyone else, stay sane and healthy.
      I’m glad Frank wrote up this article, too, and framed it the way he did. For a lot of folks, it does sum up their basic take: go along with the discomfort so we can all get along, get back on track, sit back and chill, return to whatever we were doing.
      I’m peeking through the curtains on the other side of the universe here, seeing other possibilities. This is a travel blog, appropriately, and I admit I wouldn’t be able to liberate my perceptions if I were surrounded by my first culture – coincidentally mostly Montreal, downtown and West Island. 🙂 As you’ve done, compare options between cultures. With restrictions, can’t exit Asia, so have to take control somehow. Wife has gone bananas with wiping and spraying, the masks are loaded at the front door, all due to some ret*rded m*therbleeper on YouTube – a cleancut doctor, no less – who said, “I wipe everything ten times in our hi-tech laboratory, so you should do the same every time you go to the grocer”. I hate it, I hate it, and I want to dump this dude in his Dumpster. But he’s not crazy. I played along. Shut my mouth, forced myself to comply, walk the walk, wear the gloves, spray, wipe. Lo and behold, stuff everywhere is filthy. Son of a gun. The soot. the dust, the diesel exhaust. Most of all, regular people are touching all kinds of stuff, wiping noses, fiddling with body fluid, fingering rear ends with poke-thru tissue. It hit me hard: nothing is clean, a civilized city is basically a toilet. But it’s not germs, viruses or contagion necessarily. Who’s to say it isn’t toxins, poisons, arsenicals, mercurials, heavy metals, petroleum distillates? Nobody’s going to tell me, no free gifts, so like you, my option is to research for myself. That’s what I’m doing. Work at a pharmacists’ college, and most faculty are toxicologists, so had that hint. I’m helped by my late father, arthritis 30 years, brought on by fluoride gas poisoning downwind of an aluminum smelter (extract the metal from bauxite ore with fluorine). Took me 54 years to find that answer. Came when I had mercury removed from my head. The feeling of detoxing? “Better than cocaine” I recall, endlessly smiling. Euphoria at full throttle, riding a rocket to the stars. There is nothing better, ‘cept maybe seeing the face of God.
      Where was I? Ah, this Corona, this COVID, this woo-woo amorphous cloud of gremlin dust that is permeating every crack in the cosmos. What scriptwriter scribbled this scenario is beyond me. I mean, fiction is fun, but what was he smoking?
      People believe it. No, that’s not fair. People swallow it without thinking twice. They live lives in their first culture half-awake, plugged into the TV, radio, newspaper front page, colleagues’ brains on the softball pitch. They don’t believe it, they don’t even think about it. They swallow it. Canadians right there. Stay a hockey-stick away from me, buddy, or I’ll cross-check you into the boards. Molson, please. And dontya have any Labatt’s 50?
      I wear the mask, a thin one. No, not Darth Vader, just a simple tissue the same as everyone else. No reason. And I welcome this new normal. I like it. It’s quiet. It’s utterly false, but it’s peaceful. Now that common sense has been crushed, the next pillar of society to disintegrate is going to be money. The economy is dwindling, streets are near empty, there will be nothing soon. I embrace that, too. Was downsizing anyway. Essentials only. Prepare earthquake packs. This is no different than an earthquake, tsunami, flood. Tokyo 1945. Berlin too. Sarajevo. Kosovo. Baghdad. Going to talk to gentle folks in those spots. They may know a thing or two.

      1. So, Duncan – still snorting that Coke?
        Nobody knows all the answers but my thinking is if everyone has their own little conspiracy theory we’re not getting ahead as a human race. It sucks for all of us. But look forward to a year from now and we will hopefully be as back to normal as normal can be. I’d rather think that way than go in the other direction where I’m digging a secret bomb shelter in my rented apartment and planning which of my neighbors to eat when the time comes…

        1. Hardeharahar. Canadian poke in the ribs. Can take it. All good. And I mainline Pepsi. Have always been a Pepsi man. Michael turned me on to that. Moonwalk Michael.
          Never say the c-word, stay away from theories. Just observe, and double-check my own mistakes. Lord knows, I am so gullible and have been so wrong so often. My weakness: off-the-wall questions. Here’s a question bomb I drop to geezers sitting at the bus stop: Seen any sick people today? Yesterday? Last week? All year? Nope. Say, Tanaka-san, only you and me here without masks. What’s your story? Well, see, the deer in the park don’t have masks. They’re all right. So, unless I take a trip to Toxic Tokyo, why bother? I like my face. He smiled. And I am not making this up. That was a real conversation. Tell you, I spoke with that gentle gentleman, my respect for Japanese soared. I thought , man, that is true sophistication. If he can weave his way through the fabric of this fantasy, follow his own thread, not get tangled up in fistfights and hollering, so can I. I looked in the mirror, and I shut up. I go for walks alone, and I whistle to the wind.

      2. Hi Duncan,
        I think I understand what you are alluding to about society at large and who we have become as a species and society.

        I think at 7.8 billion people on earth and a lifestyle where we value safety, convenience, consumption and entertainment over any form of growth in our personal character…we are increasingly moving towards being an ant/bee colony where Independent choices by individuals will be seen as a threat to the hive.

    2. It’s funny how Canadians and (many) Americans think very differently Michael. You’re writing about your personal freedoms about travelling the US during the pandemic. Canada (and most of the world including Europe) did have a co-ordinated nationwide response to Covid which meant our movements were restricted. There was a reason for that. It’s why American infections/deaths are the highest in the world and why Canada continues to keep the border with the US closed.

      Sorry, Lissette won’t be writing anytime soon. Too busy watching reruns of RuPaul’s Drag Race on Netflix. So I’m afraid you’re stuck with me if you so choose 🙂

      1. Hi Frank,
        Thanks for your response. Hopefully sometime in the future we will have Lissette’s voice too to add to the richness of perspective, meanwhile happy to hear your solo performance 🙂

        From my own experience, just because more people think or say something doesn’t make the analysis or rationale accurate and more importantly something that I should also follow…this applies as much to the news, hotly touted stock investments or the ‘must see’ tourist places. What works for me most likely will not work for others as I am not them nor they me. All I ask is the ability to decide for myself and be responsible for my own outcomes. For me this approach has resulted in me being able to retire before I turned 40 (8yrs ago), 15 yrs after coming to the US with $200 to my name. Along the way I also incurred student loans of close to $100k and paid it off in 3 years while still driving my Honda Civic to 360k miles and living well below my means (so you can imagine what my stance might be on all these students clamoring for taxpayers to pick up the tab on their student loans🙂)

        In life there is no safety in numbers (however many ‘we are in this together’ banners people post on their Facebook page).

        For a brief while I explored moving to Spain/Portugal as I so much enjoyed my longer trips to Europe. However I realized that it is one thing to visit a country (even on an extended basis) and another to become a tax resident. For example the wealth tax levied in Spain would be a real disincentive over and above the higher income tax rates. Similarly the restrictions on amount of time one can spend outside the country seem restrictive. So for now I am planning to be a visitor subject to Schengen restrictions while I can only hope that maybe more countries will leave the Schengen/EU over time giving me 3 months or so per country 🙂

        1. Michael,

          Not sure where you’re from, but if it’s the States….

          Don’t worry about taxes in Spain. As a US citizen you can
          never be a “tax resident” in Spain because you will ALWAYS
          be a tax resident of the US. (even living in Spain full time)

          1. Hi Michael (ie. Michael #2 🙂 )
            Maybe there’s a misunderstanding somewhere. As a resident of Spain you DO have to file taxes in Spain (as well as the US). There’s a tax treaty between the two countries but you might have to pay extra taxes depending on what you’ve paid on your US taxes.
            There is also a wealth tax but with different credits it usually means that it kicks in at 700,000 Euros per person.

            I’m Canadian, Lissette is American. Thanks to her citizenship she will now have to file in 3 countries: Canada, the US, and Spain.

          2. Hey Frank,

            I am sending you an email, with an 18 page explanation of this.
            It is from someone way smarter than me, and possibly you also?
            If this resonates at all, I don’t mind it you share it with the Michael
            who wrote this post. You’re welcome 😉

  4. As you know, Frank, I live in Sweden. Here it has always been the custom to take off one’s shoes and leave them the door on the shoe rack. There are no roaches or other critters in Swedish homes. Generally, very clean.

    Regarding masks, I lived in South Korea once upon a time and I remember people wearing masks when they were ill. It’s a good idea. Masks supposedly prevent an ill person from spreading a disease. Whether they keep a person from getting ill is another matter. In Sweden no one wears masks. The chief epidemiologist says washing your hands, not touching your face, and staying an arms length or more from another person is key. Unfortunately, these last months people have not been careful to social distance and the pandemic is here with a vengeance. Now we have stricter measures but still no mask requirements.

    We’re doing no worse or no better than any other country except maybe those that shut their borders ages ago.
    However, I do have a supply of masks ready to use, if necessary.

    1. I remember Sweden being talked about a lot in the 1st wave because of it’s relaxed attitude to masks – and then because of it’s high infection rate which was one of the highest in Europe. And then suddenly nobody talked about Sweden anymore. Maybe, because like most places in Europe, cases came down?

      As far as this 2nd wave it just seems to be uniformly bad everywhere and I think that it’s because people became careless or just got fed up. We saw it in early June here in Spain and knew it was just a matter of time. Bars were packed, masks were off, and everyone was celebrating like WWII had just ended.

      Masks work and it’s proven to be the number #1 deterrent to passing on a virus. But there have been so many holes in the rules (masks when walking around outdoors but no masks when sitting having a beer with friends?) that undermined the official “rules”. And then you, as a person that follows the rules, just question “why bother, when everyone else undermines the rules?”. Or “why bother, when you see people not following rules but don’t see anyone enforcing those rules?”.

      It’s disheartening. But as a society, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Which brings me to the Asian mentality about masks. I’d be curious about your experience/thoughts on S. Korea Edith.

  5. You leave shoes at the door? You must come from a good family. 🙂
    And slippers? Gotta have slippers. Not new ones every room, but heck, inside, outside, garden, first floor, second floor, toilet, vanity, winter slippers, summer slippers, plush ones, thin ones, paper ones for airplanes, and pinstripes for the office (the tea girls and front staff can get by in sneakers).

    1. I have to admit Lissette taught me that. For all the reasons Michael states. Once you start thinking of it it’s all pretty disgusting…
      Just socks for me. And I guess I’m a rebel because I just wear the same ones around the whole house 🙂

  6. Hiya Frank,

    I’m a wannabe friggin’ halfwit, numbskull, blockhead village idiot. Wanna go out in public places, show everyone my ageing mug, ear hair, nose hair, full face shot. But I can’t. I’m living amongst all those respectful Japanese, and many a shop won’t allow entry unless the prospect douses hands with goo, poses for a video recording, has a remote sensor temperature reading, and jeez, next thing will be a pat-down and rectal inspection, just you wait. Not bending over and submitting, not just yet.
    No, not yet. Your kind guide has a good heart, and when a person sees the absolute spewing splash that explodes out of a public sneezer’s mouth in Japan – firing a good ten metres in a split second – he will insist on everyone wearing a mask. That behaviour by the delinquents and arrogant old men (lots of them) is a big reason for the citizenry to opt for masks. The good people are really clean, and scrub floors and counters every day. Amazing. No dust or roaches in our house. And we have cats. The bad people are hoarders with Alzheimer’s. But they are usually out of sight deep in the countryside, unearthed only after an earthquake crumbles their hut.
    So, the masks. And the Masquerade, the Carnival we’re living in. I’ve decided to go more mellow, get a thin kerchief so I can breathe, wear gloves (supermarkets are filthy, and the sneezers are forever pawing over produce ) wipe bags and boxes with bleach and alcohol. Even though the whole Party is just a Performance, I will act out my part. It is liberating to stroll around in camouflage, folks don’t gawk, don’t know I’m an Alien from another planet. feel like an undercover agent, a spy. Very very comfortable. And social distancing is Nirvana. Do not want any stranger within arm’s reach. Dead serious. Hope this continues a long long time.
    And for a break, head out to the Japan Sea coast, go hiking, slip off the disguise, gets some sunshine, feel mighty good. 2020 has been fabulous.

    1. You know Duncan, the only good that has come out of this is that I’ve been allowed to let some aspects of personal hygiene go. Unsightly nose hairs? who cares. Haven’t shaven for a while? Can’t see half your face anyway. Bad breath? I can now glory in my bad breath and I don’t have to worry about yours. Yellowing teeth? Well, thanks to Covid I haven’t had a cleaning in 2 years (kind of let the 1st year go but I was definitely due this year). But who cares now. And if I’ve got snot coming out my nose that’s ok too as long as I’m wearing the mask the right way.

      Silver linings…

      1. Oo. You’re on a good day. There are silver linings. I’ve gone the other way, paid more attention to details. Clipped the nose hairs, trimmed the whiskers, dyed my balding head. Colour co-ordinated vest and tie, too. I am ready for showtime, and must broadcast my face across the ‘net. I look good, others look like fools, I get paid, they get canned. And the wife was in showbiz, so I can’t escape scrutiny from the moment I wake up. I envy you, but the whole experience has made me up my game. Sometimes it feels like being in a talent agency boot camp, inspections non-stop, cameras everywhere. And humbly, I used to be exactly what you’ve described, a slob. I wasn’t trained. Still have a ways to go.

  7. “”the followers of the current piece of shit that’s occupying the White House””

    So…. how do you really feel?

    I can’t help but think of the irony, that many who feel this way will not think twice about wearing their shoes inside the house. Prop them up on the couch, or worse their beds.
    When the streets are where dogs pee, people spit, blow snot, vomit… or for those lucky
    folks in places like San Fran, have the homeless who pee, poop, and vomit there too!

    But not in Japan… they know better))

    1. Well, that’s a whole other post but totally agree. People look at us like we’re crazy leaving shoes at the door.
      Or how about people who get home and dump their dirty suitcase on the bed?

      Anyway, not talking about bad hygiene but something that should be the most obvious in a pandemic (ie. wearing a face mask)

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