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Silence on COVID masking rules down to Japanese psychology: expert

Shibuya Center-gai street, a famous shopping arcade in Tokyo, is packed with young people wearing masks, on April 17, 2022. (Mainichi/Kenji Ikai)

TOKYO -- Discussion on when people in Japan can stop wearing masks has been sluggish. Masking has become a part of everyday life in the country because of the long coronavirus pandemic, while Europe and the United States have seen widespread movements to end or loosen mask mandates in line with infection trends. So when will we in Japan be able to doff our masks for good?

    Since the beginning of this year, places in Europe and the Unites States have started to revise masking requirements. In January, most pandemic rules in England, including wearing masks in indoor public spaces, were lifted based on the COVID-19 booster shot rate and decreasing infection numbers.

    In February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines to abolish mask mandates in areas where cases have settled down. Though the CDC asked people to continue wearing masks on public transport, a federal district court in Florida ruled the requirement illegal, eliminating mask-wearing obligations across the U.S. Meanwhile, masking again became mandatory indoors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in mid-April due to an infection surge.

    The number of coronavirus cases in Japan temporarily increased after a quasi-state of emergency was lifted in 18 prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka in late March, but has decreased mainly in metropolitan areas since mid-April.

    Kei Hirai, associate professor of health psychology at Osaka University's graduate school, says the lack of domestic discussion on masks is influenced by how people think the virus is transmitted and psychological characteristics unique to Japanese people.

    "There is widespread recognition overseas that airborne transmission is the main cause of infections, and it seems that people are becoming more aware that they will get the virus if they visit places with high virus concentrations, masked or not. But in Japan, the conventional wisdom that contact with other people and droplets are the main causes has not changed, which is the reason why people's understanding of countermeasures hasn't been updated," Hirai told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    He added, "Japanese people have this psychologically-based widespread social norm that they need to do something, and there's this idea that without a certain format to follow, there will be deviation from the norm."

    Tetsuya Matsumoto, professor of infectious diseases at the International University of Health and Welfare, called for people to keep wearing masks, saying, "There are 30,000 to 40,000 new infections per day (recently), which is less than half of the figure at the peak of the sixth wave, but they aren't small numbers. There's no doubt that masks are effective as a countermeasure against COVID-19. While a turning point where people can take them off will likely come, we're not there yet."

    On the other hand, he explained there are situations where it's not necessary to put on masks, such as when there is no one around outdoors. He said, "Sometimes we overdo it, such as wearing masks all day because we are afraid of what other people think. I think we should review our mask-wearing measures for times when masks are unnecessary."

    According to a November 2021 survey by consumer goods giant Lion Corp., 64% of the 600 respondents said they "would like to continue wearing a mask until the end" of the coronavirus pandemic, but only 38% said they "would like to continue wearing a mask even after the pandemic." Meanwhile, over 60% said they would like to continue washing their hands frequently even after the end of the pandemic. More people tended to want to end habitual masking sooner than thorough hand-washing.

    When will a relaxed masking movement get going in Japan?

    Matsumoto said, "If there are no mutant strains posing a global threat, and if anyone can get tested and receive therapeutic drugs, like for the flu, it may be possible to alleviate them (mask requirements) even if new infections continue at a certain pace."

    Hirai said, "It's difficult to just say 'Stop wearing them tomorrow.' I think we can proceed step by step, while the government provides concrete examples of situations where people can remove their masks, such as when they are outdoors."

    (Japanese original by Tomoyuki Hori and Seiho Akimaru, City News Department)

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