face-maskIf you’re living in Japan, chances are that you don’t have to prepare for swine flu, because you’re already in possession of an entire face mask wardrobe.

I’ve heard anecdotal tales of American friends flying to Japan, their anxiety at being seated on the plane next to a stranger with a face mask (are they trying to protect you from their disease, or protect themselves from getting yours?) only mounting as they disembark into an airport full of face mask wearing travelers.

The Japanese have been on the forefront of a global face mask trend, embracing the shields on the streets and subways for filtering germs, allergens, and pollution.  Demand for masks has remained strong since the 2003 SARS epidemic; by this account, Japan has 42 manufacturers producing masks for its population.

Wearing a mask in public has become  both Japanese street fashion chic and an occasion for cool packaging:  check out Design Observer’s great roundup of face mask wrappers.  While the effectiveness of face masks in stopping influenza is debatable–apparently wearing a mask around the clock isn’t even foolproof–the masks acknowledge urban environments’ germy dangers, while marking a committment to hygiene and cleanliness.  Clean is chic, at least in Japan.

But if the standard white surgical mask seems a little too sterile for your taste, you could always ham it up with a pig snout mask, or brave the crowds with a  penciled-in, pencil-thin moustache.  You know, just to lighten things up a bit.

photo credit:  lazy supper