The Mask

Oct 7, 2020Blog, Culture

The Mask

When observing the first winter flu season in Japan, one was quite taken aback by people wearing what looked like white surgical masks, and thought to oneself; wow, there are lots of doctors and nurses out and about today.

Inquiring to a Japanese friend as to why there were citizens wearing masks, they replied, “In this season, if you are feeling even a little unwell, you cover your face with a mask so as not to give something unwanted to anyone else”. 

Well isn’t that so very nice and indeed courteous of the Japanese to think in this deferential way toward their fellow citizen. 

Japanese Bowing To Each Other

Even so, truthfully, one still thought this custom was a little weird even after the explanation. 

However, soon after that one then though, well this makes sense. 

If feeling unwell, should one not venture out into the crowds, and believe me, there are some large crowds pulsing through the metropolises of Japan, as all have been on, or seen footage of the packed trains in morning rush hour.

pushing passengers on to rush hour train tokyo

Anyway, now with the new health challenges facing us globally, the Japanese are wearing masks out of season, but this time, it is almost everyone, and it was clearly not an issue for most in Japan. 

First of all, in keeping with the constitution written by the American occupiers, the wearing of face mask could not be mandated by the Japanese government anyway.

There was however, a “request” from the powers that be where all Japanese should wear masks due to this new health situation. 

Thus, most of the Japanese do so, without giving it a second thought.

However, as in all societies, there are those who for some reason or another choose to stand out, in Japan, the  proverbial “nail that sticks up”. 

Now here is an important cultural note for the dear reader, which points out the difference between the Japanese mindset, and the mindset of the occidentals.

Japanese: The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

Hammer And Nails

Occidental: The squeaky wheel gets the grease.


One of the little rebellious nails decided to stick his silly little head up by refusing to wear a mask on a domestic flight (mandated by the airline), and caused an unnecessary commotion on the airplane, where he was escorted off and arrested. 

Perhaps what this somewhat dull Japanese citizen did not realize, is beside the financial penalty, and the inconvenience of not getting to where he was going, he may very well also face one of the most dreaded things in the Japanese society: 

Mura hachi bu (村八分) or, becoming an ostracized outcast. 


Historically, this is one of the worst things that could ever happen to a Japanese person. One who brings shame or breaches unwritten social conventions are treated with contempt and disdain.

I would suggest that such an incident as this would have a negative effect on work relations as well as within his family. 

Nothing could really be worse than to bring shame to one’s family or employer, with such poor and anti-social behavior, especially when you are causing meiwaku (disturbing others) to an airplane full of other people.

One believes in any society, unless you’re a psychopath, one would not want to be ostracize. 

In Japan as a stoic type of people who valued stability and adherence to social conventions, becoming mura hachi bu is swift and harsh.

Is there room for atonement to bring this pesky little nail who has been hammered down so as to have a meaningful hansei and then being brought back into the fold?

Of course there is.

However, keep in mind these newsworthy societal transgressions, even though forgiven, are not forgotten, and will hang around this stupid and inconsiderate boy’s head as a dark halo of shame far, far into the future.

I am certainly glad the most Japanese really don’t see wearing a mask as a freedom issue, but as a societal courteous to maintain social cohesion on our shared islands. 

Update 2021-01-22
As pointed out in this blog post, this kind of anti-social behavior in Japan follows one around like a necklace of shame for all to see.

Read about the pesky little nail being arrested 4 months after the fact here.

An anti-mask advocate, the saga of this pesky little nail, Junya Okuno continues here.