If you’re a frequent rider of the New York City subway, you’re probably familiar with the surgical mask trend. The phenomenon may have originated in Japan, but in many major cities across the US, it’s now common to see people on the street, public transit, and even in schools, wearing surgical masks over their nose and mouth. At first glance it may seem like the purpose is to protect the wearer from airborne diseases, or poor air quality caused by pollution, but the truth goes far deeper than simple medical precaution. Here’s everything you need to know about why surgical masks are so popular in Asia and around the world.

Taoist origins

The cultural influence of Taoism across Japan, China, and Korea plays an unexpected and fascinating role in the mask-wearing trend in East Asia. These countries are linked by their belief in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and according to its precepts, breath and breathing are integral to good health. On the flip side, exposing yourself to bad air can be severely detrimental. One of the most important concepts to understand here is qi, which in Chinese means “atmosphere” or “odor.”

Those who adhere to Taoism strongly believe that when the bodily qi is depleted, pain and disease are more likely to develop. Therefore, clean breathing is crucial to maintaining good qi in the body. One way to ensure clean breathing is by covering the face, preventing your good qi from leaving the body, and any noxious air from entering it.

While the precepts of TCM anchor the surgical mask phenomenon into ancient beliefs, there’s more to mask-wearing than this.

The medical misconception

Wearing surgical masks first became ubiquitous on the streets of Tokyo and Yokohama following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The quake triggered a fire that destroyed 600,000 homes, filling the air with smoke and ash for several weeks. Given the significantly polluted air quality, surgical masks became common among residents of these Japanese cities.

About a decade later, in 1934, the masks came out of storage once again, when a global flu epidemic resulted in the regular wearing of face masks in Japan, particularly during the winter months. Contrary to popular belief — and in line with Japan’s preoccupation with social courtesy — they were not worn to guard against foreign germs, but to keep from transmitting your own germs to others.

The phenomenon was solidified in the 1950s, when post-war industrialization resulted in widespread air pollution, prompting many Japanese people to wear the masks year-round.

Contemporary adaptation

Whatever the cultural or historic origins of the surgical mask trend, in the 21st century, it has taken on a life of its own. In Japan, they’ve become a fashion accessory not unlike bracelets and necklaces, displaying colorful designs or pictures of popular TV characters.

The masks are also being worn by young people as a means of managing their socialization. Juvenile psychologist Jun Fujikake told SoraNews24, “When we deal with others, we have to judge whether to do things like smile or show anger. By wearing a mask, you can prevent having to do that. The trend of wearing a mask to prevent directly dealing with others may have roots in the current youth culture, in which many of them are more accustomed to communicating indirectly through email and social media.”

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