November 23

Behind the Veil

This is me today. The cold that’s going around Tokyo finally caught up with me, and I had to put on this mask before dragging myself to the local café for lunch.

Here in Japan, if you’re sick and have to go out in public, you wear one of these. There are various styles, none of them fashionable, but when I see someone wearing one on my packed morning train, I’m always grateful they’re at least trying not to get the rest of us sick. Everybody wears them: rebellious-looking teenagers, beautiful girls and even unsupervised small children in school uniforms who you’d expect to rip them off as soon as mom shuts the door behind them.

So how, you may ask, do you blow your nose in one of these? The answer is, you don’t. Here in Japan, it’s considered extremely rude to blow your nose in public. Snuffling (loudly and often) is considered the more polite alternative, but it’s best done from behind a white mask. If you see (or hear!) someone coughing or sneezing or sniffling without one, you can feel the dirty looks being beamed at the offender from all directions.

It’s a weird feeling to be out in public in one of these. It’s a bit like wearing a sign that says, “I have the plague!” tempered with the addendum, “but I’m trying not to give it to you!” As a really obvious foreigner here, I have to wear one if I’m the least bit sick, lest I reinforce anyone’s stereotype of rude, thoughtless gaijin.

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Tokyo

When Detective Kenji Nakamura’s phone rings with the news that his mother’s death wasn’t an accident, his life begins to unravel…read more