Last week, I went to the local drugstore to get a few cleaning supplies. I bought paper towels, two different types of cleaner – and a face mask.
“You freaking out about swine flu?” the cashier asked me, disdain oozing from every pore.

“No, I have a dust allergy,” I said curtly, and shoved my cash across the counter as quickly as possible.

Americans associate face masks with weirdos like Michael Jackson or Howard Hughes, but in Japan, they’ve been in fashion for years.

In a recent article by the AFP, Naoya Fujita (head of the Japan Hygiene Products Industry Association) explained the Japanese fascination with facemasks thusly:

“I think it’s part of the Japanese psyche to want to protect yourself at all cost from outside diseases. That feeling is stronger than the feeling of social embarrassment at wearing a mask.”

On the flip side, many Japanese wear masks when they feel a cold coming on in order to be polite. (This amazes Americans. Our attitude is, if we have to suffer, so does everyone else.)

Whatever the reason, face masks are widely available in Japan, with 1.96 million manufactured in 2007 alone.* You can buy them at almost any drugstore, and no one will look at you the least bit strangely.

If the swine flu panic continues to grow in the US, we may find ourselves joining them.

* Face masks part of Japan fashion chic for decades

Photo courtesy of tokyostargirl.