The custom of facemask-wearing began in Japan during the early years of the 20th century, when a massive pandemic of influenza killed between 20 and 40 million people around the world. There were outbreaks of the disease on every inhabited continent, including Asia (where it devastated India, leading to the deaths of a full 5% of the population). Covering the face with scarves, veils and masks became a prevalent (if ineffective) means of warding off the disease in many parts of the world, until the epidemic finally faded at the end of 1919.
The underlying reason could be philosophical: China, Japan, and Korea have been broadly influenced by Taoism and the health precepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in which breath and breathing are seen as a central element in good health. ‘Qi’ is a central concept in Chinese cosmology—and thereby physiology—generally having to do with energy and vapor.
Qi has numerous meanings in Chinese including ‘air’ [kong qi], ‘atmosphere’ [qi fen], ‘odor’ [qi wei], which is perhaps another reason masks are so necessary in China. Strength [li qi] and ‘pathogen’ [xie qi]. When bodily qi is depleted, or its movement deranged, pain and disease develop. So breathing is critical in order to maintain good qi in the body.”
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 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” clothes paired with a variety of masks, from Vader-esque ventilators to whole-head riot-gear rebreathers.