Face Masks in Japan: Rules v. Reality (2023)

Japan was behind the world in reopening, and as COVID-19 is now endemic, Japanese continue to wear face masks more commonly than almost any other country. This covers Japan’s face mask rules, laws (or lack thereof), and expectations, as well as other health safety measures and our experiences with masking in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka & beyond. (Updated May 1, 2023.)

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 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. Accordingly, we’ll share under-discussed details about Japan’s approach to the pandemic and its aftermath, how that impacts travel, and other thoughts.

May 1, 2023 Update: Back in March, Japan’s government drastically eased face mask guidelines. Under the new guidance, people are only recommended to wear face masks on public transportation during rush hour or when there’s congestion. Students are no longer requested to use masks during school activities. In effect, masking recommendations officially ended two months ago.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stated that this was done to relax health restrictions for economic and social activities. It came ahead of the government’s legal downgrading of COVID-19 to the same category as common infectious diseases like seasonal flu on May 8, 2023.

There has never been a legal mask mandate in Japan, but mask-wearing has become a daily custom among citizens for around three years. Kishida said the decision to put on a mask, indoors or outdoors, will be left to individuals.

About two months later, and Japan is slowly but surely…but slowly…unmasking. A variety of surveys last month revealed that about 40% of Japanese respondents always wear masks when leaving the house and another 50% wear them situationally. On average, around 85% to 90% report wearing masks at least sometimes in public.

For those still masking, surveys have shown that a little over 40% do so out of habit. Another almost 40% of respondents said they wear masks because many other people do so. Finally, 35% said they wear masks because their workplaces recommended it.

These survey numbers are almost completely consistent with artificial intelligence surveillance data. This kinda creepy, kinda cool AI analysis revealed that 85% of the people passing by were wearing masks as of April. That’s actually down about 5% from AI data a month earlier, which also reflects slowly shifting public sentiment.

It is worth presenting this with an asterisk, as these numbers are outside Tokyo Station. Not only is congested public transit one scenario where Japan’s government still encourages mask use, but many companies–including employers in that area–are still requiring that employees wear masks. Many of these employers actually do report an intention to change their rules or recommendations once the legal downgrade of COVID-19 occurs on May 8, 2023.

In short, the AI surveillance from the middle of last month at Tokyo Station likely reflects a nationwide high for masking in Japan. In our experiences, masking is at its highest around train stations during rush hour. If you’re visiting a less crowded location or a destination that skews more towards tourists or younger demos, the percentage of people you see masked up could be far lower–but probably still a majority.

Looking forward, it’s probably safe to expect a drop in mask usage of about 5-10% per month. The legal downgrade of COVID-19 will be another big milestone, as that will allow more people to drop masks in the workplace, and further normalize going mask-free. June through August 2023 will also see hotter weather, incentivizing more people to go mask-free.

Conversely, it’s likely that Japan will experience its “ninth wave” of cases in late summer, and unless case collection and data reporting ceases, that could result in an increase in mask usage. Even in such a scenario, masking is once again likely to drop in tandem with cases following the late summer months. All things considered, we’d expect mask usage to be at or below 50% on average by Spring 2024. (So one year from now.)

With that update out of the way, let’s turn to the current face mask “rules” in Japan as of May 1, 2023. 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.

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare recommends wearing a mask in certain settings, in order to prevent the elderly, immunocompromised, pregnant women, and those who at high risk of severe illness from being infected:

  • When in medical institutions.
  • When visiting medical institutions and nursing homes where people at high risk of more severe disease lives.
  • When riding a crowded train or bus during commuter rush hours and other times of congestion, excluding transportation that allows seating for all passengers (Shinkansen, commuter liners, highway buses, chartered buses, etc.)
  • When people at high risk of severe illness during the spread of infection go to crowded places.

If you are feeling sick, have tested positive, or are currently traveling with others who have tested positive, do not go out in public even if the symptoms are mild.

Wearing mask is recommended for those who work in settings such as healthcare facilities and nursing homes, in proximity to those who have a high risk of severe illness, including the elderly and immunocompromised.

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare offers these other “points to consider” with regard to masking:

  • When considering mask usage, it is important not to hinder the healthy growth and development of children.
  • Stronger infection control measures may be required, such as calling on people to wear appropriate masks temporarily according to the situation. Even in such cases, there are concerns about the impact on the health of children wearing masks, so we ask parents and adults around them to continue to pay close attention to the physical condition of each child.
  • Wearing a mask is left to the discretion of the individual, but it is permissible for businesses to require customers or employees to wear masks for infection control or business reasons. However, if it is difficult to wear a mask, due to disability, etc., please consider the individual circumstances and give sufficient consideration to prevent discrimination.
  • Please be careful not to force a person to put on or take off a face mask against their will.

Here’s a nice graphic from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare illustrating current government mask guidance:

When it comes to commentary, we’ll start with a bit of ‘background’ since face masking has been a controversial topic, so you can assess our level of risk baseline tolerance, etc. Since masking became commonplace in the United States, we’ve resided in Florida and California. If you’re not an American, those two states have had essentially diametrically opposed approaches to masking.

For our part, we masked up consistent with CDC guidelines, more or less, using KN95 masks when community spread was at its worst in year one. I was personally “over” masking once vaccinated. The last time I wore a mask with any degree of consistency was prior to California’s mask mandate expiring. Aside from when complying with rules of private businesses (or statewide mandates), I have not masked by choice in almost two years.

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. To whatever extent it works at all, one-way masking is a viable alternative and high-quality masks are widely available. The onus is on the individual to take their health and safety into their own hands.

With that said, my view on masking is: to each their own. What other people do is their business, and does not impact me. If others want to mask indefinitely, that is their prerogative. 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 during times 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…that’s what I am! This is merely my perspective to offer greater context about my perception of masking in Japan. I am not looking to relitigate any masking debates.

As it turns out, Japan’s approach to masking is very much the opposite of “to each their own.” Despite the aforementioned guidance, the vast majority of Japanese mask almost everywhere. That includes outdoor locations, even while hiking in mountain temples and other rural areas where few others were around. The airports in Tokyo and Osaka were the places where we saw the fewest masks the entire trip.

Setting aside the aforementioned airports, masking is virtually universal in Japan as of early 2023. 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 no longer 100%, but it’s still a strong majority of people. I’d estimate that outside it’s now around 80% among Japanese adults, and close to 95% 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 now and this exact same time pre-pandemic. 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 almost two years ago 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 fairly commonplace, but are also (finally) starting to decrease in usage.

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 might be the new normal for the foreseeable future. Again, it’s a matter of if not now, when? Vaccinations plus boosters have 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 one survey last year, 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 past conversations, we’ve learned that questioning the “why” of rules or recommendations is 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.

Kazuya Nakayachi, a psychology professor at Kyoto’s Doshisha University specializing in trust and risk perception, recently reiterated this, telling Kyodo News that although people think masks offer some protection against the virus, much of the motivation in donning them comes from wanting to fit in with the crowd with “appropriate behavior.”

“Various surveys indicate that along with a strong pressure to conform, there is an informational influence at work in which people seek cues in their surroundings for deciding what is the right course of action. I think people continue to wear masks because they are attuned to each other and behave accordingly,” Nakayachi said.

Nakayachi added, “much in the same way mask-wearing has partly been a result of social conformity, so too will mask removals.” His belief is corroborated by the Japanese individuals interviewed by Kyodo, many of whom indicated they’d unmask as soon as others stopped masking. Other experts predicted that this will occur by Summer 2023, with face masks flying off en masse, due to a mixture of decreasing cases, declassifying COVID-19, and grueling weather.

Ultimately, it’ll be interesting to see the degree to which Japan’s masking practices, social expectations, and rules/recommendations change by mid-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 conformity or being culturally respectful is your prerogative. We did in many settings, but not always in uncrowded settings. Of course, your mileage and views may vary. We’re simply here to share what we experienced and observed.

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.

Your Thoughts

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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