Why do Asian tourists in the West wear medical face masks?

If you’ve seen Asian tourists lurking around in the West, you most likely wondered why they wear medical face masks. While it remains a mystery to the Western people, the practice has become a significant part of the culture of many Asian countries. It stems from an incredibly rich history, which Asians have adopted until today.

Wearing surgical face masks all began in Japan a century ago. It was in 1918 when many nations were in chaos due to World War I, and their spirits were dampened by the tremendous loss of life that happened around them.

Amid all that, the Spanish Flu, a specifically dreadful strain of influenza, hit the planet, spreading and infecting over 500 million worldwide. The flu was so nasty that it even reached the distant and secluded Pacific islands and Eskimos living in the Arctic circle.

1 in 10 infected people succumbed to the diseases, but some data says that the number of deaths was even double, bringing it from 50 million to 100 million. When the war obliterated countries, the Spanish Flu added about 3-5% deaths of the population. Today, it still remains as one of the most hard-hitting pandemics in human history.

People tried to repel the deadly virus by wearing surgical masks. While the said masks were actually designed to prevent bacteria from the doctor’s mouth from contaminating their patients, people still resorted to wearing them due to desperation. They tried to protect their mouths and noses with almost anything to ward off Spanish influenza. This was the situation worldwide, however, and not in Japan alone.

Five years later, Honshu Island, where Tokyo is located, suffered from The Great Kanto Earthquake. The earthquake had tremendous strength, registering 7.9 on the Richter scale. It was so strong that it pushed giant statues a few miles away, and it didn’t help as the earthquake recorded around 57 aftershocks.

Moreover, the earthquake occurred on the most untimely part of the day – at lunchtime. The cookfires brought by winds from the typhoon winds, which was also devastating the islands at that time, exploded and killed thousands of people. Water lines had also been broken, and people weren’t able to put out the fires that raged the entire island. With that, the air quality worsened and was brimmed with smoke and ashes. The Japanese people had to rely on using the surgical masks they had worn when the Spanish flu hit them just a few years back.

A decade later, another influenza pandemic hit the world. Thus, cementing the use of medical masks in Asian culture. Initially, Japanese people only wore during the winter season, when cases of colds are at their peak. They were innately polite, and the practice was more of preventing themselves from infecting other people rather than protecting their bodies from contamination.

The culture of wearing masks further spread to neighboring Asian countries when Japan started their siege during World War II. It passed on the notion of wearing medical masks to other parts of Asia. 

Industrialization also came in, and the air quality in Asia had a rapid decline, boosting the need to wear face masks. Soon enough, other Asian countries with strong industries, such as Korea and China, followed the practice of wearing face masks. When another flu pandemic hit Asia in 1957, which struck China, Singapore to Hong Kong, and killed nearly 4 million people, wearing medical face masks has already been cemented in the Asian culture – a practice they even bring when traveling to the West.

More Readings:

Surgical Mask (Wikipedia)

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