Behind the Mask in Japan: Fear of Ostracism

by Mika Toyota

December 10, 2020

In March 2020, my sister, a Japanese citizen who lives in Shanghai, China, visited our home in Tokyo. In a typical year, she often goes home a few times. As usual, she called her old friends to meet up—but this time, her friends were reluctant. The apologies and explanations were long and carefully worded, but the point was clear: my sister had just travelled from China, where the COVID-19 outbreak was rapidly spiraling into a full-blown pandemic. But her friends stressed that they were not worried about the slim risk of being infected themselves; rather, they had to do everything they could to shield their husbands.

It would be an unbearable embarrassment if their husbands became the first COVID-positive cases in their offices, they pointed out. They feared that they would lose face and status within their companies. Respectfully, they declined.

In Japan, if an employee is found to be COVID-positive, their identifiable personal information could be announced company-wide. In some cases, the infected are asked to submit a formal letter of apology to their superior, which comes attached with a detailed account about how he or she was infected; a full acknowledgement about the negative implications for the company, including possible damage to its reputation; and a promise that they would not create troubles for the company again. If senior members acquire the virus, the pressure is even higher—they lose their moral and social standing if they become COVID victims before their underlings.

The international community was amazed and amused by how uniformly Japanese citizens voluntarily wore masks in public after the pandemic emerged. A recent study (Nakayachi et al. 2020) indicates that the motivation driving this behavior was neither the perceived threat of the virus itself, nor the faith that masks would reduce the risk of infection. Instead, the single most important reason? The socio-psychological pressure to conform with others’ behaviors.

It was the fear of the cold look on the street, especially in crowded commuter trains, that put masks on everyone’s face—everywhere and all the time. Simply put, people in Japan wear masks because everyone else does (Nakayachi et al. 2020). In fact, the awareness of their medical effectiveness comes secondary, if at all.

But mask-wearing is more than just conformism. In Japanese society, a victim of the virus is perceived as a troublemaker. In fact, the power of communality and the fear of being ostracized have a deep history in Japan. Shame-based social ostracism (“Murahachibu” in Japanese) was widely practiced in Edo Japan (1603-1868), which means that villagers voted to ostracize those who failed to conform collective norms. The ostracized were excluded from most essential daily village life arrangements, except for two: rescue in the case of fire, and burial in death. It was entirely up to the village collective to decide which households were to be excluded. The household was expected to express deep remorsefulness through public letters of apology and verbal versions again at public meetings in the village, which could lead to lessened penalties.

Although such collective sanctions of defamation were legally abolished in 1909, the social pressure to conform to collectives—be it neighbourhoods, schools, or workplaces—remains strong. A new term primarily used by Japanese youths emerged in the 2000s: “reading the air”. The phrase refers to the social skills that one must master to detect the mood of the immediate surrounding collective in order to decide what to say and how to act. Those who failed were tagged as “KY (incapable of reading the air)” . Solidarity among peers is often fostered through socially ostracizing someone. Under the COVID-19 pandemic, those being infected are harassed because it is believed that the infected failed to fulfil their duties to protect themselves from the virus.

When it becomes known that a Japanese celebrity is infected, the celebrity is expected to issue a formal apology to the public. Some common phrases of the apology include: “causing inconvenience/anxiety” for those working for them; for “disappointing” their fans; and for “upsetting” the public for being the bearer of the bad news. It is difficult to discern whether the celebrity actually feels genuine regret for doing nothing wrong and being ill. But it would be regarded as societally incorrect if no apology was issued. The apology could be merely a formality, but nonetheless it is regarded as a necessary ritual, at least to convince the public. Similarly, when an employee is infected, the company is expected to announce a public apology too. “We sincerely apologize for the anxiety and concern that this news [that a number of its employee were COVID positive] may cause to people in the surrounding regions,” states website of the massive automaker TOYOTA.

Even more strikingly, it was reported that some nurseries requested medical personnel not to send their children to the nurseries. Children of doctors and nurses—who are celebrated as “key” or “frontline” workers” in other societies—are discriminated against as potential vectors of the virus because of their parents’ occupation. Instead of being celebrated, they were vilified. The nurseries argued that they have to be “responsible” for other children and prevent them from being exposed to the virus. The managers of the nurseries are not only responsible for minimizing any possible contamination, but also for preventing the risk of harmful rumors within the nursery—it is the communal arena that has to be protected at all costs. In this sense, the communal arena is neither fully public nor private; seemingly, this societal institution is a bounded group whose interests can be at odds with the general public.

Japan remains a country with a relatively low infection rate. There are no penalties for not wearing a mask, and no anti-mask protests either. The social control of wearing masks is largely internalised and self-regulated, but particularly effective. Yet the emotional costs for individuals—especially for those who are likely to be exposed to the virus—can be agonizingly high. While the Japanese government has been running the “Go to Travel” campaign to subsidize up to 50 percent of the cost for domestic travel, to stimulate the national economy, the mutual surveillance amongst citizens is reinforced by shaming those who “pollute” the purity of the community. As a result, those who are infected by the virus became a target of moral criticism rather than a priority of social protection.

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