SARS. Remember SARS? The newest and evilest virus around, with a batch of super powers that dwarfed your regular bad guys Influenza and the Common Cold. SARS could throw on a cape and pass herself off as just a bad cold, batter her victims to death in an escalating cough in a few short days, then soar off cackling, unshackled by gravity and oblivious to oxygen, the kryptonite that shackled her sluggish and sadistic cousin, AIDS. Was this the end of our hero, Mankind? Had he battled his way through the opening levels, finding the weak points of the Whooping Cough and the Black Plague only to find himself at the door to the Final Boss’s room on his very last life, no Continues left, no hope at all? Well, no, SARS didn’t really pan out like that. SARS was back in the Gotham Penitentiary by the end of the show, and by the next episode a new super villain dressed in a cape of black feathers was doing battle with our intrepid hero. Zong! Zap! Kapow! “Take that, Bird Flu!”
It may seem cruel to turn a fatal contagious disease into a cartoon, but from the start the media played the story with an apocalyptic seriousness. “Hong Kong Brought to It's Knees!” AP photographers swarmed Asian streets hungry for images. Cotton surgical masks, about as common a sight as water bottles, were seized immediately. A young woman with a cold walking in a crowd of commuters and suddenly she’s on the front page, every bare face in the background blurred and ignored. What I find so interesting about the mistake is that the English language media took the masks as a sign of individual fear; a major world city terrified out of its fashion sense. Caption: “What kind of fatal air-borne disease would it take to make you wear something this ugly?”
Well, either Asians don’t have the white-cotton-masks-are-ugly-and-weird gene or we have just wandered into that Never-Never Land of intellectual discussion: Cultural Difference. Yes, that mysterious land where rational thinking, the laws of physics and common sense disappear into a sweet, warm vapor, and everything is ruled by the magical Wizard of Culture.
Q: Wizard of Culture, why do Asians sometimes wear surgical masks on the train and in the supermarket?
A: Well Suzy, they’re a group minded people, don’t want other people to get sick you know.
Q: Why are they a “group minded people?”
A: Ha ha ha, that’s their culture!
Q: I don’t get it, why is it different from ours?
A: Diversity is the spice of life Suzy, it’s why Eskimos live at the North Pole, the French wear striped shirts and Indians eat beetles.
Q: Eww, bugs?
A: Don’t be racist Suzy.
Sorry, got a bit carried away there.
At any rate, people who visit me in Japan are often curious about the cotton mask phenomenon, so I’ve compiled a list of theories, all or none of which may be relevant.
1) The history of modern Japan is sorely lacking in stick-ups, heists and safe cracking. Too busy with schemes of world domination to bother I suppose. Ski-masks seem to be unnaturally associated with winter sports and heat retention. Masked men take out loans from banks and use exact change in liquor stores.
2) When Adam and Eve got their crack at evolutionary goodies they got a little bit greedy. (Bear with me here.) Brain capable of abstract reasoning, tool making... We’ll take it! Color vision: in 3-D... throw that in too! By the time everything got installed we were left with nasal passages crammed up against the edge of our skull, the exhaust system thrown on at the last minute. Wait a few million years and that deluxe model thinking organ we got on layaway had suddenly devised a way to stuff the air with just enough smog and dust to clog up the exhaust system, prompting a few of the human models to add on some white cotton filters to the system.
3) A weird forestry policy in the 1950's prompted the entire country to raze old-growth forests and create a cheap domestic source of timber by growing Japanese cedars instead. Long story short, American timber was actually cheaper, but the country is still covered in a single kind of cedar, which happen to produce voluminous quantities of pollen. During a year spent in a town where the main industry was timber my two-door Toyota was sprinkled with a fine yellow powder every spring morning, and I would sometimes even see bright yellow clouds whipping around in the wind. Add all this to Tokyo’s saturated air supply and you get cotton masks and oxygen bars.
4) Hey, it’s not like people think they look cool, you wouldn't wear it on a wedding or a first date. Jesus, can you imagine the first guy who had to wear glasses out in public? The first set of braces? Hell, Ug the Caveman must have had a hell of a time explaining why he was wrapped in a stinking wooly mammoth fur instead of shivering out the winter like everybody else.
It’s February, and winter is grumpily giving itself up to spring, trading off a few days of each week in a hot-cold tango. Once the cedar trees decide it’s spring we’ll be in trouble, time to add a filter to the nasal exhaust. Last year I got my first bout of hay-fever, snotty nasal clean up crews bombarding the polleny invaders with batteries of sneezing that would stretch for hours. But I drew the line at masking my face. Just seemed a bit... weird. But we may need some help this year, and I’ve been pretty interested in the new models with specially matrixed filters that hug your cheeks like a second skin...