Fashion-forward face masks

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, face masks were a common sight on Japan’s streets. But now they’ve become essential attire for everyone, and companies are adding more style and function to the basic cloth.

When Tokyo governor Koike Yuriko takes to the podium to give her daily coronavirus briefings, at least some of the attention is usually on her choice of face mask. Sometimes it’s floral, sometimes it’s vivid green, and sometimes a light chiffon number.

Koike isn’t the only politician making a fashion statement with her protective facewear. Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide has worn masks with designs by Japan’s indigenous Ainu people, while Okinawa governor Tamaki Denny opts for masks handmade from traditional Okinawan cloth.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s choice is more restrained. He prefers to don the plain white cloth squares that his government is mailing to every household in Japan. They’ve been dubbed Abenomasks.

While the early days of the coronavirus saw a rush on basic white surgical masks, as the outbreak drags on, people are getting more creative and expressive. Shops in fashion districts now offer wide arrays of patterns, from pop modern to traditional Japanese.

Japanese politicians now routinely wear masks in public, but not all have the same flair.

People in Japan, already used to wearing masks, may have adjusted to the new era more easily than those elsewhere, but medical experts warn that there’s danger ahead as Japan’s scorching, humid summer approaches. Hundreds die from heatstroke every year, and the experts say masks could make this much worse.

On Monday, the Japan Association for Acute Medicine and three other doctors' groups issued proposals for combatting heatstroke this summer, and their suggestions include removing masks and resting occasionally while maintaining social distances.

Casual clothing chain Uniqlo says it plans to launch a range of masks made of the same porous material used in its underwear brand AIRism. The company says the fabric can quickly absorb and wick away perspiration.

Cooling masks are sold in vending machines alongside drinks.

And the firm Knit Waizu from Yamagata Prefecture has developed a cooling mask that features pockets for refrigerant packs. They say that can keep your face cool for about 90 minutes.

Whether people opt for refrigerant packs, AIRism or simply wearing masks less, they’re going to have to find a balance between surviving the COVID crisis and surviving any heatwaves.