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'Mask police' on the prowl in Japan targeting people not covering up over virus fears

An image of children leaving for school wearing masks (Getty)

TOKYO -- Numerous reports have circulated on social media of members of the public acting like "mask police" in Japan as they target people for failing to take cover-up precautions against the novel coronavirus.

The name "mask police" comes from another group, referred to by online users as the "self-restraint police," who harass and report other people or stores that do not follow requests to refrain from activities. Although it is important to prevent coronavirus infections, a society that forces its members to wear masks even in settings where risks are low can be viewed as oppressive, and wearing them can even pose health dangers such as by causing heatstroke. The Mainichi Shimbun looked into the issues around wearing masks, and its reporter Haruka Udagawa wrote about her own encounter with a member of the mask police.

***

I had gone for a walk after finishing work at home one weekday evening in late May. I was pushing my 1-year-old daughter in a stroller. As I was walking along a river near the station, I saw an elderly woman coming toward us from the other side. She said loudly as she passed, "Mom! Your baby needs to put on a mask!" The woman did not appear to be joking; the look on her face suggested she was seriously upset. I couldn't respond to the sudden outburst, and just gazed at her face as she walked past.

Face masks (Getty)

At the time, I was wearing a mask, but the idea of putting a mask on my daughter didn't cross my mind. Even if I had tried to get my daughter to wear it, she would likely show signs of displeasure and wouldn't even last a second with a mask on. The path we took for the stroll wasn't crowded, and it was wide enough for people to pass each other while maintaining a certain distance. I headed home feeling gloomy, and thought, "What kind of a world is this 'mask society' where parents are scolded if their 1-year-old doesn't wear a mask..."

***

Udagawa is not the only one who has had these experiences. A hashtag, "mask police," has appeared on Twitter, and many posts have been made that recount encounters with such vigilant individuals.

An account which appears to belong to a teacher described a conversation they had with a first-grader in elementary school who had just arrived for class. The girl had come in crying, and when looked at more carefully, the teacher noticed she was covering her moth with her hands. When they asked, "What happened? Do you feel sick?" the girl shook her head and answered in a small voice, "I forgot my mask." She said that on her way to school, "A man yelled at me to wear a mask and I got scared." The post had been retweeted over 90,000 times as of June 24, and comments have also flooded its replies section.

A student who said they ride a bicycle to school shared that they've been making sure to wear a mask throughout their whole commute, even if it gets sticky with sweat, after a complaint was made to the school from a local resident saying "there's a student that has their mask off." Others took to Twitter to voice their opinions on the matter, posting messages such as "It feels odd that there is an atmosphere of mask use because you'll be reproached for not wearing one, rather than for the purpose of preventing infections," "Using masks is a good thing. Yelling at people is not," and, "Only adults who converse in loud voices should wear masks."

Masks were originally put in to use primarily to prevent droplet transmission through coughing, sneezing, conversations, and the like. Among the "new lifestyle" guidelines to prevent infections, which were announced by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in May, residents are requested to wear masks as part of three basic preventative measures, which also includes calls to maintain social distancing from others and to practice handwashing. It goes without saying that wearing a mask when outdoors is preferable, and they also help people to avoid risks presented by unthinkingly touching their own nose or mouth with hands carrying virus particles.

On the other hand, there are fears that heatstroke cases will emerge as temperatures rise. The Japan Pediatric Association strongly warns that "the usage of masks by children under 2 years is dangerous, and it is crucial that those aged 3 years and older are also not forced to wear them," as there are underlying threats of suffocation and heatstroke. With consideration for the risks, the Health Ministry revised its "new lifestyle" guidelines on June 19. The ministry specified conditions for wearing a mask as "cases where space between others cannot be sufficiently secured," and also added a clause stating, "Sufficient cautionary measures against heatstroke should be taken in the summer."

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology also made revisions to its manuals for schools on June 16, and requested that flexible actions prioritizing anti-heatstroke measures be taken by adding clauses such as, "When you have difficulty breathing in the heat, respond to the issue using your own discretion, such as by removing your mask or breathing in and out while temporarily hanging the mask from one ear," and, "Masks are not necessary in cases where sufficient distance can be secured."

Shinya Iwamuro, a doctor specializing in public health, pointed out, "Droplet particles can only travel up to two meters, so there is no chance of infection unless you're in a situation where someone in front of you coughs in your direction. Although droplets are dispersed when speaking in a loud voice, they only travel straight ahead." The doctor expressed understanding that the usage of masks is unnecessary in cases where students maintain a distance of 2 meters or more from teachers during class, or when students commute to and from school while keeping a distance between others.

(Japanese original by Mayumi Yamanouchi and Haruka Udagawa, Integrated Digital News Center)

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