Author: Julia Nagai, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Alumna. You can contact her at email@example.com
Fieldsite: Julia is based in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. Sakai is a small city just south of Osaka City. This piece draws on observations conducted across Osaka Prefecture.
The need to practice social distancing has pushed many people to socialize and convey affection to their loved ones virtually. Across the globe, family and friends have celebrated holidays, birthdays, and accomplishments over video call. People use messaging apps more than ever. Even those who dislike social media have started using it more in order to stay connected. Although in-person socializing is limited, not all ways of conveying affection during the Covid-19 pandemic are virtual. During the worst of the coronavirus crisis in Japan, gifting masks was a physical and tangible way of expressing love for family and friends and caring for communities.
Masks were scarce in Japan from January to late May. Scarcity is defined as “the absence of sufficient resources to support human needs” (Durham 1979). “Scarcity” is usually used when referring to the lack of life-sustaining resources such as water or food. However, it is not unreasonable to say that Japan was facing a scarcity of masks until recently. Masks have become a vital resource during the pandemic. They are crucial to preventing being infected or spreading Covid-19. Yet, people have had a hard time getting their hands on them. Stores in Japan were sold out for months, and it was uncertain when they would be available again.
People in Japan have responded to mask scarcity in similar ways as people responding to water or food scarcity. One way people respond to scarcity at the household or individual level is by intensifying resource acquisition efforts (Wutich & Brewis 2014). Wearing masks to avoid contracting or spreading infectious diseases or to reduce pollen allergies has been common in Japan since long before the coronavirus. That being said, they were easily purchased at a variety of stores before the pandemic. To get masks during the scarcity caused by the coronavirus, people lined up for hours at the few stores that still sold them. Others made masks on their own, usually out of cloth or kitchen paper. Stores selling supplies that masks could be made out of provided mask-making instructions, encouraging novice DIYers to try making one.
Another way people responded to mask scarcity was by modifying the consumption (Wutich & Brewis 2014) of masks. A large number of people said they prefer cloth masks because they can be washed and reused many more times than disposable surgical masks can. Those who were using disposable surgical masks also reused them. Some washed disposable masks like they did cloth ones, while others waited a few days before wearing a mask again. Although infectious disease experts and doctors maintained it was best not to reuse disposable masks, they acknowledged that most people had to. Segments instructing people on the best ways to reuse disposable masks were aired on television.
Regardless of how it was obtained or how many times it was reused, it was necessary to have a mask. Not having a mask did not only mean having less protection from the coronavirus. To go out without one meant violating the intense social pressure to wear one*. Resource insecurity has been described as a marker of social failure (Wutich & Brewis 2014). Indeed, not wearing a mask in public was associated with shame and embarrassment. People who didn’t wear masks were seen as irresponsible and careless. To forego wearing a mask meant to announce to the world that one does not care about their own health or the health of others. Currently, there are few new coronavirus cases in Osaka. That, combined with the risk of heatstroke (Osaka summers are very hot and humid) have led local officials to ease mask-wearing guidelines. That being said, it is still seen as foolish and reckless to not wear a mask in public buildings or on public transport.
Considering the efforts involved in acquiring masks, giving them away was a significant way of conveying affection. While some people donated masks to schools or hospitals, many only gifted them to close friends or family. Usually, those who gave masks to strangers or organizations had plenty for themselves. Due to the uncertainty of when they would be available again, many chose to keep the few masks they had. The scarcity of masks made them a resource to only be given away carefully. If someone received a mask, they knew that they meant a lot to the giver. Occasionally, people gave masks to others they were only acquaintances with. In these cases, the recipient would offer to pay for them, acknowledging that their relationship is not close enough to accept masks without providing compensation.
The gifting of masks was also facilitated socializing. During the state of emergency, people avoided socializing in person. Still, a friend might stop by with handmade masks or supplies to make them. It was too risky to invite visitors inside to chat, so when socializing was limited to the front doorstep when someone stopped by with gifts. Others sent masks by mail. Recipients of packages containing masks were happy and thankful to hear from their loved ones and receive vital supplies. Dropping off or sending someone a mask was a way of showing that the giver was thinking of them during a tough time. For those struggling to stay connected, making sure that their loved ones had enough supplies was a way of checking in.
In particular, gifting masks was a way of caring for older people. An elderly woman in Osaka Sayama told me that she is often given masks “because she is old”. She received masks from neighbours and friends, as well as the city of Osaka Sayama. Gifts of masks showed this woman that her friends, neighbours, and local government cared about her health. Additionally, younger people who were able to put more energy and time towards acquiring masks gave them to their elderly parents. One man was able to purchase disposable surgical masks at his local grocery store. They came in packs of 7 and were not available every day. Customers had to ask for them at the cash register and were only allowed to purchase one pack. After going to the grocery store on a day when masks were available and standing in a long line, the man was able to buy a pack. He sent them to his mother with a note saying, “it isn’t much, but I’m sending these to you”.
While some local governments, such as the city of Osaka Sayama, did a decent job of providing vulnerable citizens with masks, the national Japanese government did not. The frequently criticized “Abenomasks”** were a failure in many ways. In addition to being seen as an inadequate government response, the masks arrived late and were very small. Citizens in the Kanto area received “Abenomask”s in April, soon after Abe announced that they were being sent out. However, they arrived to the Kansai region much later. Many residents did not get them until late May when masks were starting to be sold in stores again. Others are still waiting for theirs. When the masks arrive, they are often unusable. They are so small that many citizens report not being able to keep both their mouth and nose covered. The masks were only useful to children or adults with small faces. By gifting handmade or purchased masks to vulnerable friends and family members, people accomplished at the local level what their national government could not. They cared for and kept their communities safe.
Just like sending a LINE message or talking on the phone, gifting masks were a way of socializing and conveying affection during the worst of the coronavirus crisis in Japan. Masks were extremely difficult to obtain until late May. Gifting masks was a strong indicator that the giver cared deeply about the recipient. Making sure that friends and family had supplies was also helped facilitate socializing during a time when it was difficult to do so. Providing masks to vulnerable community members, such as the elderly, was a way of caring for fellow citizens when the national government failed to do so. Masks have become a symbol of life in the age of the coronavirus, but in some cases, they’re also a symbol of kindness and affection.
*For more information on social norms in Japan during the coronavirus pandemic, see “Making Staying at Home Popular: Social Norms as a Force for Encouraging Social Distancing”
**“Abenomask” is a slang term for referring to masks provided by the national government. It is a combination of “mask” and the prime minister Shinzo Abe’s last name, as well as a play on the word “Abenomics” (Abe + economics, used to promote Abe’s economic policies). For more information, see Laura Haapio Kirk’s blog “Coronavirus in Japan: smartphones and keeping self-informed”
Durham, William (1979) Scarcity and survival in Central America: ecological origins of the Soccer War , Stanford University Press
Wutich, Amber and Brewis, Alexandra (2014) “Food, Water, and Scarcity: Toward a Broader Anthropology of Resource Insecurity”, The University of Chicago Press on the behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research , 444-468