We just returned from about one month in Japan during fall colors season, with time in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Kanazawa, and elsewhere. From that, we have a lot to share. Let’s start with a common topic: mask rules and expectations, as well as other health safety measures.
Japan’s masking culture has been well-documented elsewhere, and we aren’t pretending to be ‘pioneers’ on this frontier. However, much has not been discussed in the context of travel this year and in 2023. Additionally, we were surprised and frustrated on a number of occasions by other health protocol–or the lack thereof–and the contradictions in Japan’s approaches.
In some cases, this resulted in Googling a question or observation for more details or backstory, only to find few–if any–results since mid-2020. Accordingly, we’ll share some of the under-discussed details about Japan’s approach to the pandemic and its aftermath, how that impacts travel, and other thoughts.
First, we’ll start with a bit of ‘background’ since face masking has been a controversial topic (at least in certain places), so you can assess our level of bias, baseline tolerance, etc. Over the course of the last couple years, we’ve resided in the United States, splitting time between Florida and California. If you’re not an American, those two states have had essentially diametrically opposed approaches to masking.
For our part, we’ve masked up consistent with CDC guidelines, more or less, using KN95 masks when community spread was at its worst. I was personally “over” masking once fully vaccinated in Spring 2021. Nevertheless, I continued wearing masks consistent with CDC guidelines until the middle of that summer, then again in early fall of that year through late winter. The last time I wore a mask with any degree of consistency was prior to California’s mask mandate expiring in February 2022.
My personal basis for being “over” masking after vaccines were available was essentially if not now, when? (Meaning that if a population is no longer immunologically-naive, and long-lasting protection against severe disease exists due to durable immune memory of B and T cells, why continue masking? What other basis is there for rolling back health safety measures given the now-endemic nature of COVID?)
At that point, I had enough risk tolerance and am sufficiently low-risk that my personal assessment was that continued burden of masking outweighed its value. On top of that, one-way masking is a viable alternative and high-quality masks are widely available, so the onus is on the individual to take their health and safety into their own hands.
As a general matter, my view on masking is: to each their own. In the early days (through about fall of 2020), I was admittedly apprehensive being around unmasked strangers. Since then, I have not really cared either way. What other people do is their business, and does not impact me.
While we no longer mask, we do take certain mitigation measures when convenient and if community spread is higher. For example, we dine outdoors much more frequently than before, especially this time of year when spread is surging (and the weather is pleasant in Southern California). I realize much of this is a very ‘westerner’ way of thinking, but I’m simply trying to share my perspective for context. I am not looking to relitigate any masking debates.
With that out of the way, let’s turn to the current face mask “rules” in Japan. Those are air quotes around rules because, in fact, Japan does not have legally-enforceable mask mask mandates or rules. Like so much of the culture, masking is part of Japanese etiquette or the social contract. Masking remains nearly universal in Japan when other individuals are in view.
With that said, here is the government’s official guidance via the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare:
Here’s a nice graphic from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare illustrating current government mask guidance:
Upon landing at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport (and breezing past a colossal line at a health checkpoint thanks to pre-registering for the Fast Track, which is off-topic but we’d nevertheless highly recommend!), we were greeted by signs and handouts that essentially reiterated the above guidance.
In actuality, none of this is presented as guidance to foreign visitors. The term “required” is used repeatedly on official government information, and between that and observable behavior, the impression is that masks must be (legally) mandated.
As it turned out, the airports in Tokyo and Osaka were the places where we saw the fewest masks the entire trip. That includes outdoor locations, even while hiking in mountain temples and other rural areas where few others were around.
Setting aside the aforementioned airports, masking is virtually universal in Japan as of Late 2022. Some might shrug this off, noting that masking has always been commonplace in Japan. That’s partially true–masks have been a thing, especially since the SARS and MEARS outbreaks. However, I cannot recall ever seeing more than 10-15% of the population masked. It was never like this before.
To be sure, masking in Japan is not quite 100%, but it’s very close. I’d estimate that outside it was around 95% among Japanese adults, and close to 99% indoors. To the extent that people are not wearing masks, they are mostly foreign tourists.
However, there are a few caveats to this. First, those highly-scientific statistics are (obviously) only my observations; masking is something of which I was acutely aware and paid attention in order to cover here. Second, those numbers include anyone wearing a mask in any way.
To that point, there are a good number of people–especially younger and older men–who wear face masks as chin straps. In addition to those individuals, many people only mask their mouths, leaving their noses exposed.
Perhaps most interestingly, the number of people I observed wearing properly-fitting, high-quality masks was exceedingly low. KN95s or above are very rare; more people are wearing surgical or cloth masks.
Given all of that, it should thus be relatively unsurprising that Japan is largely going through the motions when it comes to other health safety measures. The approach epitomizes hygiene theater, with the visible signals of supposed-safety mattering more than actual mitigation.
This was reinforced throughout Japan, but nowhere more than on public transportation.
More than anywhere else, masking was universal aboard trains. Over the course of a month, I saw 3 Japanese people without masks on trains. As with anywhere else, I did spot plenty of noses.
Notably, trains were packed during busy times and there was no discernible difference between November 2022 and this exact same time 3 years ago. These densely-packed trains were unsurprising, as remote work never really ‘caught on’ in Japan to the extent that it did elsewhere.
On top of that, we routinely saw windows with labels indicating that they were left open for ventilation. A wise idea to reduce the likelihood of transmission…had it been true. Many of these windows were closed (presumably by riders as the weather turned colder?) and some trains had no open windows whatsoever.
Worse yet, it was incredibly common to hear non-stop coughing and sneezing. I lost count of how many times we move seats on a train because someone near us was visibly sick. (But don’t worry, they were wearing a cloth mask!) In fact, it was an incredibly common sight to see people remove their masks to cough or sneeze.
Beyond the universal masking, hand sanitizing stations and temperature check stations that no one was checking were both common. Still uncommon was soap in restrooms, at least outside of Tokyo.
Speaking of restrooms, virtually all hand dryers were out of service “for safety.” This is one of the things I had to research, as this was a new-to-me phenomenon. Supposedly, the government reversed this decision last April at the behest of the Japanese Business Federation. Apparently the operator of virtually every restroom in Japan didn’t get the memo.
It’s always been the case that you should travel with a towel to dry your hands in Japan; now that’s the only option.
At restaurants throughout Japan, plexiglass dividers are still ubiquitous.
This is particularly amusing in ramen shops and other older, intimate settings. They are packed with people and have zero ventilation, but don’t worry, there’s a piece of plastic that barely rises to nose-level!
To be clear, the lack of ventilation and ‘improper’ mask-wearing does not bother me from a health safety perspective. Rather, it’s the hypocrisy of it all. It’s difficult to take the health measures seriously when they are half-hearted and largely symbolic. It comes across as performative rather than a sincere caution or desire to reduce risk. I can’t be sure why masking is nearly universal, but it doesn’t seem to be entirely due to concern about COVID at this point.
If masking is truly important culturally, so be it–but at least cover noses or wear high-quality masks with greater efficacy. If reducing transmission in crowded spaces is critical, discard the plexiglass and crack a window or door. The list goes on and on. It should not be the case that visible measures are always favored over invisible ones, even those that are demonstrably more effective at mitigation.
For my part, I mostly followed the face mask guidance from Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Actually, I went “above and beyond” (although it definitely did not feel like it). I wore a cloth face mask at all times indoors and on public transportation.
Outdoors, I typically did not mask. (At least, not properly; lots of chin-masking and nose-out masking in these scenarios.) There were exceptions to this, such as private places of business with rules requiring masks. For example, Universal Studios Japan requires masks “at all times” in the park and I followed that in full. For the comfort of others, I also wore a mask properly in densely-crowded outdoor areas, such as nighttime illuminations in Kyoto, which were busier than I had ever seen.
There were certain situations where I used my own discretion and did not mask. Both Fushimi Inari and Kuramadera in Kyoto had (weathered) signs up encouraging or requesting face masks. I’m not sure whether these policies are actually still in effect, but we visited the former after 10 pm when no one was around and the latter on another uncrowded day.
Not once was I confronted about not wearing a mask outdoors, and I didn’t notice any side-eye or judgmental stares. Japan is always a mixed bag when it comes to treatment of cultural outsiders, and this is often so subtle as to be unnoticeable. We didn’t perceive any better or worse treatment than normal, and the Japanese in general were as welcoming as ever. Masks, or lack thereof, seemed to be a complete non-factor in how we were perceived and received.
As indicated above, I’m sharing our experience because this has been a common query. Many of you have indicated that you’re waiting until 2023 to visit Japan when “things are back to normal.” From my perspective, that seemed like a sensible position.
Or it did before we took this trip. This is for two reasons. First, because of our reception and just how shockingly normal everything already is, minus the masks and assorted hygiene theater. Given that alone and its minimal intrusiveness, there’s really no reason to wait.
Second, because there’s no telling when Japan might be “fully” normal. Our experience as of late 2022 might be the new normal for the foreseeable future. Again, it’s a matter of if not now, when? Vaccinations plus boosters has not been enough. Nor has government guidance. Same goes for eight waves and a lengthy stretch during which Japan had the most recorded cases in the entire world.
None of this changed the equation, so what will? Optimistically, I’d like to think that opening up to the world and seeing foreign tourists without masks might give those who have mask fatigue “cover” to likewise remove their masks.
However, it’s just as likely that such behavior will be used to feign superiority or as the purported cause of future waves. Already, precisely this is happening, with Japanese media drawing a tenuous connection between reopening and the eighth wave. Japanese social media feigns righteous indignation at images of maskless foreigners.
More likely, it will take better messaging from Japan’s government. In a recent survey, 72.7% of respondents indicated that they are in favor of dropping the practice of masking, but 58.4% were unaware that the government had already dropped its guidance for masking outdoors.
This was consistent with our (admittedly limited) experience talking to friends while visiting Japan. When we inquired about masking and other safety measures, the consensus was that the practices were done so because the government requires it. (In these and other conversations, we’ve learned that questioning the “why” of rules or recommendations is very much a western thing.)
Past surveys have suggested that peer pressure is also a powerful factor, with people modifying their behaviors based on how others act. While a majority no longer wanted to mask, over 90% felt compelled to do so because everyone else was. Another older survey indicated that some favor masking for reasons having nothing to do with COVID–anonymity, insecurity, etc.
Ultimately, it’ll be interesting to see the degree to which Japan’s masking practices, social expectations, and rules/recommendations change in 2023. While we question what could conceivably happen to trigger different behavior, it’s worth a reminder that this was the same perspective many had about the border closure itself.
As with so many things, change happens gradually, then suddenly. It may be difficult to envision the status quo shifting after three years, but it’s even more difficult to imagine this continuing for decades to come.
As for recommendations regarding masking in Japan, we’ll simply reiterate prior advice: you are a guest in another country, so it is appropriate to act accordingly. In our view, that is done by following the letter of official public health guidance and any rules that private businesses might have in place.
Irrespective of your beliefs, that’s what you agree to when entering the country and patronizing those establishments, respectively. Whether you want to go ‘above and beyond’ for the sake of social signaling is your prerogative. We did in many settings, but not in others. Of course, your mileage and views may vary. We’re simply here to share what we experienced and observed…and rant a bit about the absurdity of it all. 😉
If you do opt against wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely anyone will say anything. The only times we ever saw this occur were at a Hilton breakfast buffet in Tokyo (masks were required when getting up to get food) and at Universal Studios Japan. Everywhere else, people were left to their own devices. This is hardly surprising. The Japanese are typically non-confrontational, opting instead for passive-aggressive slights to which foreign visitors are mostly oblivious.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan, check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other things to do! We also recommend consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto and Ultimate Guide to Tokyo to plan.
If you’ve visited Japan since the border reopened for travel, what was your experience with masking? Will you travel to Japan in 2023, or are you still waiting for more restrictions to be lifted or for things to fully return to normal? Thoughts about any of the health safety measures or hygiene theater discussed here? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!
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