The reality is that the woven-cloth surgical masks provide minimal protection from environmental viruses anyway. (Surgeons use them to protect patients from their mouth-borne germs, not the other way around.) But the masks’ actual prophylactic utility is, in a way, secondary to other reasons they’re being worn, which is why they’re likely to become more common in the future—even among non-Asians….
The bottom line is that in East Asia, the predilection toward using face-coverings to prevent exposure to bad air is something that predates the germ theory of disease, and extends into the very foundations of East Asian culture. In recent years, however, mask-wearing has become rooted in new and increasingly postmodern rationales…
Studies have found that among many young Japanese, masks have evolved into social firewalls; perfectly healthy teens now wear them, along with audio headsets, to signal a lack of desire to communicate with those around them. This is particularly true for young women seeking to avoid harassment on public transit, who also appreciate the relative anonymity the masks provide.
’Masks are even becoming an element of East Asian style: In Japan, surgical masks bearing chic designs or the images of cute licensed characters can be purchased in every corner drugstore, while last month at China Fashion Week, designer Yin Peng unveiled a line of “smog couture” clothese paired with a variety of masks, from Vader-esque ventilators to whole-head riot-gear rebreathers.…’