I recently came across the abbreviated portmanteau taipa, meaning “time performance.” Selected by dictionary publisher Sanseido as its word of the year for 2022, taipa embodies a rather depressing state of affairs.

Apparently, youngsters are using the term to describe maximizing efficiency when carrying out those boring tasks we used to call entertainment, such as skipping to the chorus of their favorite songs and watching movies at double speed. Why listen to the snappy and beautifully simplistic intro to “Billie Jean” when you can jump straight to Michael Jackson singing about how she’s not his lover? And if The Godfather is good over three hours, imagine how epic it is in 90 minutes, watching Vito Corleone’s upturned mouth move like he’s loaded up with amphetamines. When the things that make life interesting are reduced to mere drudgery, it’s another sign that we are slowly failing as a species.

Another slang term that’s found itself in common parlance is kao pantsu, or “face pants,” referring to face masks. The idea here is that taking off one’s mask in public is tantamount to walking around bollock-naked. This might be just as silly as trying to consume The Dark Side of the Moon without appreciating the instrumentals, but with masks becoming an even more pervasive factor in our daily lives than the virus they’ve failed to protect us from, I can see the perverse logic.

Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, said in a press conference in 2022, “I don’t expect the day will come in Japan when people will remove their masks in a life with Covid-19.”

Mask or No Mask

Now, I know the mask debate is a tiresome one, but a recent review by Cochrane, a British NPO that works in partnership with the World Health Organization and is widely considered the gold standard for evaluating health interventions, has revealed the most authoritative findings on the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of Covid-19.

The review’s lead author, Tom Jefferson of the University of Oxford, later summed it up: “There is just no evidence that they [masks] make any difference. Full stop.” Perhaps coincidentally, a couple of weeks after the Cochrane review was published, the Japanese government said it would ease mask-wearing guidelines in schools and aboard non-congested public transport, effective March 13. This follows a largely unheeded government recommendation last May that the public could forgo masks in most outdoor situations.

Does this most recent issuance mean Japan is finally ready to move into a post-pandemic reality?

A recent poll by The Mainichi Shimbun showed that 49 percent of respondents wanted to take off their masks more often, while 44 percent said they would prefer to keep wearing them. A similar survey conducted by Laibo last autumn suggested more than 70 percent were in favor of axing face coverings at least some of the time.

The uncertainty has many underlying factors. Pre-Covid, it was common to see masked commuters during winter flu and spring hay fever seasons, so their newfound ubiquity didn’t come with the same dystopian connotations as it did in the West. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases has continued to recommend masks indoors, despite their apparent shortcomings (though it should be noted, the recommendation is for “nonwoven masks” specifically). Facemasks have also become commodified and commercialized. In Harajuku, for example, you can find a rainbowed array of masks to pair with your seasonal fashion ensembles.

And then there’s the issue of kao pants. The widespread adoption of masks has become an intriguing experiment in human behavior within a conformist society. Removing one’s mask is to deviate from the norm, to distinguish oneself from the crowd, or simply put, it is to embrace an embarrassing social taboo.

That social pressures are driving mask usage in Japan has been evidenced by the many Japanese people I have met while traveling overseas during the past 18 months who discarded their face coverings the moment they set foot on foreign soil. Images of maskless Japanese fans at the 2022 Qatar World Cup stand as another case in point.

Anti-mask protestors in Shibuya, circa 2020 | Image by Twitter user @Roy_Endart

Japan vs. the World

I often hear the argument that mask-wearing in Japan is about compassion and protecting those around you. Following this to its logical conclusion, it suggests that many outbound Japanese travelers are callous enough to only want to protect others in their own country. For me, this crumbles under the most cursory of scrutiny.

From the perspective of individual liberty, I’m in favor of everyone’s right to wear whatever they please on their faces. But masks, alongside temperature checks at restaurants, ongoing protocols for inbound travelers and those little machines that spit sanitizer over your hands, give a sense of crisis that doesn’t really equate to the reality of our situation anymore.

Covid prophylactics are widely available. Hospitals have learned to co-exist with the virus. The super-infectious omicron variant, the primary strain in Japan, has a lower mortality rate than seasonal influenza, which has encouraged the government to downgrade Covid’s legal status to the same category as common infectious diseases by May. And despite being battered by more “waves” than a blustery Scottish headland, Japan still has one of the lowest Covid death rates of all OECD countries.

Moving on also allows us to reflect more dispassionately on what went wrong. How many cancers or diseases went unchecked because of the healthcare industry’s myopic focus on Covid? What are the lingering effects of sending a generation of children to school in masks? How has social isolation further affected those on the fringes of society? The government appointing a loneliness minister in 2021 perhaps partially answers the last one.

I don’t envy any sleepless policymaker who was bombarded with mountains of data before their coffee had cooled each morning. And pointing out the mistakes of officialdom over the past three years is not to take a high-and-mighty, Captain-Hindsight approach. Rather, it is to arm ourselves with better knowledge for when the next pandemic sweeps in. I really don’t think this debate needs to be a contentious one. The government is slowly paving the way for Japan to enter a post-pandemic reality. I hope we are willing to accept it.

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