Bandit or Beauty? What's beneath the mask?

Masks used to be the purview of bandits, bank robbers and superheroes; people who wanted to keep their identities concealed, but over the past year, masks have become essential for everyone, despite the reluctance of some. Now, we are all wearing masks whether we want to hide our identities or not.

One possible reason why COVID-19 hasn’t not had the impact in Japan that it has had in Europe or the US, is possibly due to how quickly and easily the use of masks was taken up. Wearing a mask in public is not a strange thing in Japan and it is very common among Tokyo commuters especially in the winter months. It is also common practice among family doctors and nurses at anytime of the year.  

I remember that when I first arrived here I found people wearing masks quite unsettling, I couldn’t understand it; why do they have to hide their faces? Do they have something to hide? This was especially true when people, usually woman, came to lesson wearing a mask. Somehow the mask acted as a barrier, creating more distance between us, and inhibiting conversation. In reality it rarely did or does, apart from muffling the voice a little, but it took a while to get used to it.

People in Japan wear masks for a variety of reasons and it is particularly common in the winter. In some cases it was precautionary, reducing the risks of picking up the flu from the crowded commuter trains or ingesting pollen molecules - hay fever is a big problem for many in the spring. In other cases, people who had sniffles were politely protecting others. But in some cases it was cosmetic, women wore masks to hid a pimple, skin blemish or the fact they couldn’t be bothered to put on makeup. For a rarity, masks were occasionally a fashion accessory. 

I resisted wearing a mask for a while even when I was under the weather, but I do vaguely remember the strangeness of putting one on for the first time - bending the wire over my nose and trying to breath through the fabric, feeling a little like Darth Vader, except that the mask was white. I did it when I had the flu or some sort of heavy cold and didn’t want it to spread to other people in my immediate surroundings, whether at home or work. It was a matter of courtesy more than anything else.

The collective/individual paradigm is trite but it does cast light on the behaviour of people in Japan - you don’t just wear a mask for  yourself, you do it for others. There is a greater concern for the collective or at least not unduly impinging  on others. Individualism has many merits, but like the Greek warriors in the phalanx, you don't carry the shield just for yourself, you carry it to protect others and hold the line. Once the line is broken, all is lost. In this hyper-individualised society we forget that no matter how individual we want to be, we cannot escape the communal group. We are both affected and protected by it. It is in times like these that you realise how true this is. Being a true individual would mean living alone in the woods, a life that would be dull, arduous and fleeting. Wearing a mask seems like a pretty small infringement of personal freedoms when you consider that by protecting others you are protecting yourself, and vice versa.

Of course, we have all worn masks on other occasions and for happier reasons - I think I still have some ghoulish jaw hidden in the back of a cupboard somewhere as part of a halloween costume - which leads to thinking about masks in other areas. The Venetian masks worn at Carnival, the wearing of which had much more lascivious purposes, something that was indulged in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”.  The mask is a common part of the superhero get up too, but the Venetian masks and those of most superheroes cover the eyes, the whole face and possibly the head - think Batman or Captain America - whereas the medical style masks we wear these days cover the mouth, nose and cheek bones. Most Venetian masks undoubtedly needed to conceal the identities of those in dalliance for when life returned to normal in the daylight hours. Batman’s cowl does hide his identity, but Zorro’s mask does little more than cover the eyes, and very little to hide who he is. And, of course, Clark Kent’s mask is just a pair of glasses.

How much do the medical masks we wear hide our identities? They don’t really conceal enough of our face to be unrecognisable. It takes a moment but it is still possible to recognise someone we know passing on the street. Often too late to stop and say hi though, which means they don't work especially well for superheroes or bandits, except perhaps if you add a baseball cap and sunglasses.

I realised that over the last year or so I have come to know a few people and never seen their whole face; I don’t really know what they look like. One day I will see them without their masks but it may take me a minute to recognise them and certainly it will be like meeting them anew, updating the mental picture of what they look like and to some extent, who they are. The lips, the mouth, the teeth, the jaw line, convey a lot of what we look like and what we express. Yes, you can smile with the eyes and see the cheeks raises as someone smiles behind their mask, but it’s not the same. Even with people we know but whose faces we haven’t seen for a while, take on a different mental image, where it’s difficult to quite remember what they look like with out it. The removing of the mask almost becomes something tantalising.

This poses one of many possible pratfalls of romance in the COVID-era - if such a thing is even possible beyond Zoom dates - what do you do when the person you’ve been hitting on takes off their mask, only to reveal a full face that is not quite what you had fantasied?! Of course, that was the point of the Venetian masks, but it’s hard to imagine these days that a couple engaged in a tryst would want to keep the masks on. Like everything else, they have to come off, and probably first not last. 

Fashions around masks have also grown up and likely will continue to do so. As pop ups stalls capitalise on the demand, the mask has become a fashion statement for many, from working out with a Project Rock version, to indulging in Burberry’s tartan offering. I’ve seen people adorning them with earrings, and very early on I saw one woman wearing a mask with the same patterned material as her jacket. It worked rather well. However, I was disappointed to learn during the summer last year that I just can’t make a mask work with sunglasses. I feel a bit too inconspicuous, but then again it might do a better job of hiding my identity for those superhero moments.

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