While the coronavirus has made masks part of everyday life in Japan, in the reality depicted by recent movies and dramas, office workers, young lovers, schoolchildren and others continue to lead lives untroubled by the pandemic.
Even in a hospital drama series that ended in December, the only mask wearers were surgeons. The world portrayed in commercials and ads is equally devoid of face coverings.
Japanese drama makers are not alone, of course, in acknowledging the desire of audiences to see actors' facial expressions. Nevertheless, given the omnipresence of masks in public spaces in Japan, the dissonance between the real and screen worlds is perhaps more striking than anywhere else.
But aside from in fiction, what is the prospect of Japan finally returning to a maskless world?
Kazuya Nakayachi, a psychology professor at Kyoto's Doshisha University specializing in trust and risk perception, says that although people think masks offer some protection against the virus, much of the motivation in donning them comes from wanting to fit in with the crowd with "appropriate behavior."
"Various surveys indicate that along with a strong pressure to conform, there is an informational influence at work in which people seek cues in their surroundings for deciding what is the right course of action. I think people continue to wear masks because they are attuned to each other and behave accordingly," Nakayachi said.
As a result, mask rebels like Tetsuhide Noguchi, an 81-year-old business owner who does not wear a mask at all, are very rare.
Noguchi, who says he contracted COVID twice this year but with only mild symptoms, acknowledges he gets "reproachful looks" on trains and "can feel the pressure."
But, speaking to Kyodo News in front of Tokyo's Shimbashi Station, he argued that what troubles him more is what he feels is a loss of a "sense of connection" among people.
"Not seeing people's facial expressions is bad for communication. It's like being a robot. Humans show emotions through their facial expressions. We're becoming isolated," he said.
More than seven months have passed since the Japanese government relaxed its guidelines on voluntary mask usage in May, reflecting receding fears of the virus due to a stabilization of cases. But the public ignored suggestions that mask use could now be dropped when "speaking with people at distances of at least two meters," for instance, or in quiet indoor spaces with ventilation.
That is unlikely to change at least in the short term as Japan experiences its eighth wave of the pandemic. The Japan Medical Association last month asked people to refrain from "high-risk behavior" to prevent the spread of the virus.
The resurgence of the virus comes after the Japanese government removed its cap in October on daily foreign arrivals and its ban on individual travelers from abroad and non-prearranged trips. It also started a subsidy program for residents to boost domestic tourism.
Unlike in some other countries, mask wearing in Japan has never been mandated by the government. But an online survey conducted in October by Laibo Inc. shows that it remains firmly entrenched almost three years since the start of the pandemic.
Less than 1 percent of 1,011 respondents, who were in their 20s to 50s, said they do not wear masks at all.
Among the overwhelming majority who do, around 54 percent said they wear or remove masks based on the situation, slightly eclipsing the 46 percent of the total who said they wear them regardless.
Asked for reasons for mask use in the multiple choice survey, almost 77 percent said they see them as effective to some degree against the coronavirus. But adherence to manners followed at 49 percent, social norms at 42 percent, and the "unseen pressure to conform" at 39 percent.
Other less cited reasons for donning a mask included to protect against the flu, to avoid the need to wear makeup or groom one's face, and even, selected by 4 percent, feeling it looked good as a fashion choice.
The most dominant reason for the eight respondents who did not wear masks at all was seeing "no meaning" in it, while factors such as the government having no mandate, inconvenience, "nobody" wearing masks abroad and health reasons were also cited.
In another multiple choice survey, a third of a sample of 1,011 foreign visitors to the country said they "did not mind" Japan's masking norms, accepting that rules differ depending on the country.
A shade under a third, meanwhile, said "Japan was behind" on the mask issue, while another 30 percent said masking should be an individual choice not left to the government.
As well as unfailingly donning masks in public spaces, to a lesser degree, people still routinely mask up even when walking alone to and from train stations. Solitary drivers are even sometimes seen masked inside their vehicles, too.
People, however, unmask at restaurants and bars, although many such establishments request that customers keep their masks on except when eating.
As one infectious disease expert put it: "I think that the 'quiet mask dinner' that was recommended for a while was an idea that was unfeasible for many people."
Asked if he thinks masking has effectively slowed the virus's spread, one 54-year-old Japanese man said, "I don't think it has because it's an airborne infection, not a droplet infection. Otherwise, why is the virus spreading so much? Here we are in the 'eighth wave.'"
He added: "If wearing masks was only for one year I think many people would've taken them off, but it's been three years so they're here to stay."
In May 2020, a conference of infectious disease experts in Japan laid out a proposal for a "new lifestyle" under the coronavirus, including the strict observance of social distancing, hand-washing and wearing masks "even when showing no symptoms."
That year, there were about 60,000 confirmed coronavirus infections in Tokyo, but by the end of September this year, the cumulative total had shot up to about 2.76 million.
Whereas the fatality rate exceeded 5 percent in the pandemic's first wave, experts say it had dropped to about 0.1 percent by the end of October this year due to the availability of new treatments and vaccines and the mutation of the virus.
Takuya Adachi, director of the department of infectious diseases at Toshima Hospital in Tokyo, shares concerns about the impact of pervasive masking on the ability of people to build healthy relationships.
He argues that the pandemic, along with the spread of smartphones, has contributed to a sense of disconnectedness that could potentially lead to a bleak future.
"If the 'new lifestyle' involves everyone wearing a mask and silently staring at smartphones on the train, at work and in places like school where conversation used to be normal, I think that's not the bright future we had hoped for," said Adachi.
He has spoken in the past about how widespread masking might even exacerbate the decline of Japan's population as more people are unable to form intimate relationships because of adherence to COVID measures.
"I believe that it is important to build interpersonal relationships that are rich in humanity, so instead of people uniformly wearing masks like now, I think it would be good to have the freedom not to wear one," he said, while adding that those who do wish to don masks should feel free to do so.
Although many countries have lifted their mask mandates or relaxed restrictions in public spaces, experts point out that mask effectiveness varies, depending on the situation and medical grade, and that wearing such filters does not preclude a person from contracting the virus.
Moreover, most infections are due to airborne transmission from aerosols, not droplets that surgical masks might protect against. Still, various studies conclude that along with recommended vaccinations, coverings can reduce the risk of infection.
Adachi argues that the difference in the number of infections shown in each country on charts with lots of peaks and valleys used by the World Health Organization and others is largely due to how widespread testing is.
"I think countries like Japan still aiming to test all infected people are probably in the minority," he said. Because testing standards differ, it is "almost meaningless" to judge the relationship between mask-wearing and the COVID pandemic trajectory by referring to "the apparent number" of new cases across countries.
As for people who wear masks alone outdoors but unmask when they dine out with friends, Adachi said, "I don't think wearing one when you're alone outside helps prevent infection. But many research studies report human-to-human transmission of virus is likely to occur at restaurants. I think it's safe to say it's true."
Retiree Yoshiaki Hamamoto, 67, who wears a mask depending on the situation but always has one on in crowded areas like downtown Tokyo where "people yell when they drink," says he worries about the toll masking might be taking on children.
"More detailed follow-up has to be given to children based on their situation," he said.
An expert from abroad who agrees is Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist based in New York City. On her website, she poses the question, "Are masks healthy for social development?" spelling out several problems with masking that might influence social cognition and language, self-esteem and emotional development.
"Children may suffer from challenges in language acquisition skills since watching lips move helps them focus their attention on spoken language and better understand the mouth movements that produce speech," Carmichael, author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety, told Kyodo News in an email.
Carmichael says by masking children, which in many cases happens with those older than 2 in Japan, "The development of their self-esteem may also be "jeopardized because adults around them might be less able to notice and respond to their nonverbal displays of happiness or sadness since their faces are largely covered."
Becoming socially aware of various situations also requires reading facial expressions, she says. Educating people about the potential pitfalls of masking, especially for childhood development, could get more people to remove them if they have a "misguided belief that mask-wearing is always the healthiest thing to do."
An expert panel that advises the health ministry said last month that the peak of the current eighth wave, which has disproportionately affected the elderly with the dominant Omicron BA.5 subvariant, could come before year's end.
Japan's death toll from the virus has reached over 50,000 people and more than 27,000,000 cases nationwide.
Manner posters under the banner "kindness goes a long way" on the Tokyo Metro subway promoting proper etiquette, such as offering a seat to a passenger who needs it or discouraging "manspreading," depict everyone in masks: Mask-wearing is so taken for granted that it is not one of the items of train etiquette being promoted.
Still, some people, especially young women and young men, have had enough, unmasking, although sporadically, even on crowded trains.
This is despite announcements by East Japan Railway Co., for example, which request that people continue wearing masks inside stations and on trains.
After the winter flu season, some predict the coverings will start flying off en masse, especially by summer 2023 -- what would be Japan's fourth time masking in grueling conditions that have been linked to heatstroke among schoolchildren and others.
Hidetoshi Nakaya, a 17-year-old Kobe high school student, wearing a mask and traveling in Tokyo from western Japan, said he feels pressure to conform when he goes maskless for too long.
Asked how he would feel if and when Japan does away with uniform masking, Nakaya said, "I'd feel very embarrassed to take it off. I have a skin condition, so I want to fix it before I expose my face."
In downtown Shibuya, Keiko Obayashi, 50, a mask wearer who creates clothing for a doll manufacturer, said, "If most people start taking masks off, I'll take them off too, but that's not the case, so I'm still wearing one."
Psychologist Nakayachi of Doshisha University said, "If much in the same way mask-wearing has partly been a result of social conformity, so too will mask removals."
Nakayachi likely has a point about the irresistible influence of crowds on behavior.
Japan's J-League, by its own estimate, had close to a 95 percent mask compliance rate in "cheering sections" among spectators in 28 soccer matches at stadiums in 2022.
But masks came off at sports bars around Japan as people cheered on the national team at the recently concluded FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Even more conspicuous were the many maskless supporters gathered in wild outfits in the stadiums in Doha where they chanted slogans side by side to root for the "Samurai Blue."
Instead of fiction, Japan's exuberant fans offered people watching on screens back home a full-frontal assault of what a real life without masks might look like. Whenever it happens on a more regular basis is anyone's guess.
(Junko Horiuchi and Reito Kaneko contributed reporting)
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