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From 19th century to modern day: A look at Japan's mask-wearing history

A Japan-made mask from the Meiji period (1868-1912), one of the earliest of its kind, is seen in this image taken in the Tokyo suburban city of Tachikawa on March 17, 2021. The box describes it as a "breathing apparatus," and the inside of the mask contains metal bars. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

TOKYO -- Masks have become essential items during the protracted coronavirus pandemic, but their history in Japan is not widely known. To find out more about their past, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter spoke to Tamotsu Hirai, 69, a pharmacist from the Tokyo suburban city of Tachikawa and head of the Kitatama Pharmaceutical Association, who has been collecting masks for over 20 years.

    Looking at his huge collection of masks from the Meiji era (1868-1912) through the Showa era (1926-1989), a slightly unexpected story of Japanese people's relationships with masks emerged.

    A nishiki-e colored woodblock print of a clinic, from the early Edo period (1603-1867), is seen in the Tokyo suburban city of Tachikawa on March 17, 2021. The work, which shows some of the medical treatments of time, includes a man in the top left wearing a handcloth over his mouth. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

    First, Hirai took out a black cloth mask from his collection stored in a cardboard box. The mask was in a box and its lid was decorated with a drawing of a man in Japanese-style clothing. Although quite small, the mask turned out to be a bit heavy. Its interior was red, with metal bars, each about the thickness of pencil lead, lined up inside.

    "This is perhaps the oldest existing mass-market mask. In 1879 (year 12 in the Meiji period), a long-standing, Tokyo-based medical equipment seller put out a newspaper ad calling it a "breathing apparatus," and this appears to be from the same period. At the time, masks were primarily import items, but this product was a match for the ones shipped in. "(The ad) says it's 'well-made and affordable,'" Hirai said. To use it, the user apparently would have to apply gauze to the mouth area.

    Masks from the late Taisho period (1912-1926) and leading up before World War II are seen in this image taken in the Tokyo suburban city of Tachikawa on March 17, 2021. They are luxury items using leather and other materials, and were even fashion items. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

    The foreign term "mask" began gaining wide usage following the Spanish flu pandemic around 1918 to 1920 (year 7 to 9 in the Taisho period). It was then that cloth masks with a ribbed shape emerged, and filters went from being metal to celluloid -- then a new material. "Demand increased, and some businesses took advantage by upping prices. With the marketplace's masks not enough to cover requirements, the private and public sectors worked together to recommend hand-made masks," Hirai explained.

    When society finally calmed down again, high-quality masks made from velvet and leather, unlike commonly found ones, emerged. One of the mask boxes shows a woman in a beige hat wearing a matching-colored mask. On their use, Hirai said, "In today's money, one mask would cost about 3,500 yen (about $32.15). It was probably a kind of status symbol. They look sharp, like the beaks of karasu tengu crow-billed goblin folklore creatures, so I call them karasu-tengu style masks."

    Packages of cold medicine sold in Toyama Prefecture and elsewhere during a postwar period are seen in this image taken in the Tokyo suburban city of Tachikawa on March 17, 2021. The bags largely feature designs with masked women. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

    Then, Japan entered the war. "Patriot masks" made of a single layer of thin, white gauze with a cord attached reflect the view at the time that "luxury is the enemy." The catch copy on the underside of a wax paper bag reads: "Colds are coming! Prepare for emergencies and protect a lifeline."

    Hirai said of the masks, "It's a complete switch after first the pursuit of functionality, and then enjoyment of them as fashionable items; shortages of materials led to cheap, flat gauze masks. Although the number of gauze layers themselves was on the up, the confusion following the end of the war meant gauze masks were the primary option for a while."

    Masks used about 100 years ago, during the spread of the Spanish flu, are seen in this image taken in the Tokyo suburban city of Tachikawa on March 17, 2021. The filters include celluloid, and almost all of them were black. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

    His collection also includes cold medicine from door-to-door drug sellers in central Japan's Toyama Prefecture and elsewhere. "A lot of packaging designs include images of masked women. The term 'masked beauty' even came into use," Hirai said. When I asked him when the trend for disposable nonwoven masks started, he told me, "From the 1980s onwards; around the time pollen allergies became common nationally. They seem to have been taken up because they're convenient and clean."

    Hirai graduated from the school of pharmacy at Kitasato University. While running a pharmacy in his hometown, he would also go to various antique markets in different areas. "Although I research the history of medicine and general hygiene products, you really don't know what they're like unless you hold them in your hands. It's not just masks, I have more than 20,000 items in the collection including signboards and other things. I rent two places to store them all," he said.

    Tamotsu Hirai is seen holding a mask used about 100 years ago during the spread of the Spanish flu, in the Tokyo suburban city of Tachikawa on March 17, 2021. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

    I asked him if he has any rivals; he answered, "Nope," matter-of-factly. He has also been interviewed by German media about the collection. He said, "It seemed like they were interested in Japan's mask culture. Japan has since long ago had customs of hiding the mouth with Japanese paper during Shinto rituals, and there have been trends of wearing hoods that cover the head and mouth.

    Simple masks used during the war are seen in this image taken in the Tokyo suburban city of Tachikawa on March 17, 2021. One of the packages refers to the mask as a "patriotic mask." (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

    "In one Edo period (1603-1867) nishiki-e colored woodblock print of a clinic, one of the residents depicted is holding a handcloth to their face. That kind of tradition also existed, meaning Japanese people were used to masks. We see governors of different prefectures wearing ones associated with local specialties. It's not just about preventing infections, but paying attention to design. Japan is the only place in the world (that is like this)."

    As a final question, I wondered whether he might have added the controversial "Abenomask" free masks distributed to every household in the country in 2020, dubbed after then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "I have, for now, included them in the collection," he said.

    (Japanese original by Takuma Suzuki, Integrated Digital News Center)

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