In Japan, where the popular use of face masks predates the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have studied the topic of mask dependency for years. Photo: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP
After a year of mask wearing, many Americans will now be able to bid their face coverings goodbye. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidelines last week, saying that fully vaccinated people can bare their naked faces in most indoor and outdoor settings.But some are hanging on to their coverings, and not always because they are being extra cautious during a pandemic or traumatized.
In Japan, where mask-wearing culture has long existed, research suggests a hesitancy to unmask may be a symptom of mask dependency.The term, first coined by counselor Yuzo Kikumoto, refers to mask wearing for purposes other than hygiene, such as anonymity and anxiety. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of mask addicts seeking her counseling services increased by 50 percent, according to the Straits Times. About 60 percent of his clients were women.Akari Yamamoto, a homemaker in her 30s living in the city of Yokohama, said her 7-year-old son has developed mask dependency during the pandemic. She requested the use of a pseudonym to speak with VICE World News because she doesn’t want her acquaintances to know her son’s condition.She said her son wears his mask in empty playgrounds and on deserted streets. Even if there’s a non-family member in their home, “he won’t take his mask off,” she said. “When we’re outside, he’ll only remove his mask when he’s eating something.”“Sometimes he feels so uncomfortable that he’ll try to eat with his mask on. He says he doesn’t want others to see his actual face,” she added.According to the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, mask wearing has been a part of Japanese culture for over 100 years, from the beginning of the Spanish flu. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was normal to see people donning a mask around flu season, or in the spring when people’s hay fever worsened. Given the practice’s ubiquitousness, it’s often lauded as a reason for Japan’s relatively low COVID-19 transmission rates.
But Japanese researchers have noted that more are wearing masks out of social anxiety. Kikumoto, who believes this has been exacerbated by society’s increasing use of social media, likens masks to a security blanket, the Strait Times reported.A 2018 study by psychiatrist Noboru Watanabe at the Akasaka Medical Office found that masks allow the wearer to hide any signs of anxiety or nervousness, although mask dependency can worsen social anxiety disorder.Watanabe also claims that mask dependency is a type of process addiction, a concept developed by American clinical psychologist Anne Wilson Schaef. In contrast to alcohol or drug dependency, which relies on things, process addiction exists when individuals find peace of mind from an act. Other more well-known examples include gambling, sex and excess internet use.Yamamoto’s son, who had to wear masks as soon as he entered his new elementary school last year, has rarely seen his classmates’ bare faces.“I’m worried he’ll fear interacting with others. It was mandatory for him to wear masks at school. He was also taught social distancing guidelines. In the summer of 2020, he never took off his mask outdoors,” she said. Yamamoto is looking for a cure to her son’s mask dependency, but fears there may be no immediate solution. “I’ve been to his school, talked to his school counselor, even consulted a child psychologist. But they told me, ‘It can’t be helped now.’ And I think they’re right. Currently, our house is the only place where we can safely take off our masks, there’s no way to cure it.”Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.