The hot topic at the morning meetings this week has been インフルエンザ, a.k.a. "infuruenza," a.k.a. the flu. The school nurse took me aside last week and told me to be careful because one student had the flu. That number has risen to at least 2 or 3, and everyone is on alert.
Face masks have been popping up across the classrooms like dandelions in a field. Bottles of ethanol have been placed around the school for people to clean their hands with, American hand-sanitizer style.
The Japanese have been wearing masks long before the swine flu craze of last year. When you have a cold or allergies or any sickness that might mean coughing and sneezing, it`s common courtesy to wear a face mask in Japan.
The masks are so ubiquitous that they are also a fashion statement. This article has great pictures of the many different kinds of face masks that are available in Japan.
I feel a little tickle in my throat today, but I`m hoping to avoid donning a mask as long as possible. Masks make everything feel like I`m in some doctor`s office or the final scenes of E.T. when the government takes over their house. Not to mention the fact that it`s hard to breathe with one on, let alone talk clearly.
Last year, entire grades in Zack`s school were shut down because of the flu. This was even after face masks were made mandatory for everyone, sick or otherwise. So, do the masks really work at preventing the flu? It`s up for debate. Even if they do work, everyone takes them off for lunch, which seems to defeat the purpose. But, like many things in Japan, it doesn`t matter if it makes total sense.
The masks are more than just a potential preventer of disease; they are a statement. They are a sign of politeness, the one thing that Japanese people value more than anything. They are the least confrontational way of saying "I`m sick." Like the seemingly useless head scarves we wear for fire drills and cleaning time, they are just part of the culture. And that isn`t changing any time soon.