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Japan's thin, white security blanket

The Japanese love affair with the surgical mask goes beyond health protection, though that is again at the center of a surge in mask popularity. This time the worry is nuclear radiation.

May 16, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Some pedestrians wearing masks in Tokyo
Some pedestrians wearing masks in Tokyo (Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg )

Reporting from Tokyo — Leaning against a wall in the busy Akihabara electronics district here, Tomomitsu Funayama was enjoying a do-nothing day off from his architectural job. Yet he looked less like a slacker than a surgeon late for a big operation.

For years, the 26-year-old Tokyo native had resisted the urge to follow the millions in this city who don face masks during the "wheeze and sneeze" hay fever and flu seasons to protect against allergens and help stop the spread of germs.

This year, Funayama joined the pack. But it wasn't pollen that concerned him; it was radioactive isotopes.

"I'm worried about the air in Tokyo," he said. "The radioactivity is all around us. Who knows what we're breathing in?"

Japan's massive March 11 earthquake triggered a tsunami that damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant about 150 miles north of here, sending radioactive particles into the ground, sea and air.

Government officials are adamant that Tokyo's air is safe to breathe, but some residents aren't taking any chances. Since the disaster, sales of surgical masks have jumped, sellers say.

"Customers are buying in bulk now," said a clerk at a crowded pharmacy in the popular Shibuya district. "For a while, we couldn't keep enough masks in stock. Everyone wants them."

Experts differ on how much radiation protection the thin piece of cotton provides. But the Japanese concerns about such particles are merely the latest wrinkle in the country's love affair with the surgical mask, which over the years has moved from health precaution into the realm of fashion accessory and even psychological crutch.

On some spring days, it seems every other commuter in the capital is wearing one — bike riders, runners, men in suits and women in heels dashing for the subway.

Some women wear the masks if they haven't had time to apply their morning makeup. The shy like the anonymity the mask offers, according to media reports here. Lower faces shrouded in white, eyes hidden by sunglasses, some people look more Invisible Man than human.

Historians say Japanese began putting on face masks nearly a century ago, wearing cloth and brass-wire coverings as protection from factory pollution and, later, influenza epidemics. In recent years, the surgical masks became popular when the SARS epidemic swept other parts of Asia.

In a culture that emphasizes the good of the group over the individual, the coverings play an important role: In flu season, many people wear them not just to filter the air they breathe, but to keep from spreading their germs to others, especially since blowing one's nose in public is frowned upon.

During long commutes on crowded subway cars, many Japanese see wearing a mask as their civic duty — a concept seized upon by advertisers.

Nowadays, there are jewel-studded masks with luxury-brand logos, one that stops lipstick from smearing, and enough colors to allow the wearer to coordinate any outfit.

The other day, Masahiro Kasahara was wearing a mask that complemented his pink shirt. But he said the nuclear plant crisis had little to do with it.

"No mask will protect you from radiation," the 23-year-old office worker said. "If it's in the air, we're already covered in it."

Robert Kelley, a nuclear engineer and former contractor for the U.S. Energy Department, said the masks would stop larger "dust-sized" particles, but not gases.

"They probably make the wearer feel better," he said. "I wear one when I am doing dirty work like sawing or sanding, because it does keep my face and nose cleaner and I feel safer about big dust bits going into my lungs. But the smaller the bits, the less the paper mask will do."

Others say that even the cheapest mask is better than none to prevent sickness from airborne radioactive isotopes.

"Ideally, people should wear a mask, but even breathing through a wet handkerchief or cloth will help to serve the purpose of substantially lowering inhalation of radioactive airborne particles in an emergency when no specialized masks are available," said Elena N. Bodnar, director of the Chicago-based Trauma Risk Management Research Institute, who treated victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in the Soviet Union.

Funayama says he won't be taking off his surgical mask any time soon. "Radiation is invisible," he said. "It scares me."

john.glionna@latimes.com

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