Material culture: mask behaviour in rural Japan

PhD researcher Chisaki Fukushima is currently in Japan conducting fieldwork. Covid-19 has caused the nature of her fieldwork to change, which she has had to adapt to, but it has also provided an opportunity to observe other phenomena, particularly, the changing role of masks in the community.

Masks handmade by Machiki-san. Credit: Chisaki Fukushima

Transformation, observation and Covid-19

It took only a couple of weeks from the beginning of March for the small rural town I have been living in for my field research to turn into a ghost town. All the stores were shut except for the supermarket and franchise convenience stores, and no one, except a few people in cars, was visible on the street.

Given a large part of my research involves human contact, methods such as face-to-face interviews and participant observation became impossible to conduct, apart from the latter, at a distance. My ‘outsider status’ has made my fieldwork further challenging; people recognise that I am from outside of the community, and, even worse, that I am from abroad, where the terrible Covid-19 crisis is taking place. Despite the fact that I have observed a quarantine period and observe scrupulous hygiene measures, people see the ‘outside’ world in me. (I am continuously reminded that my existence has multiple social layers that will impact the data I produce.) Therefore, in order to minimise my ‘alien’ attributes, I moved into my informants’ neighbourhood, which allowed me to interact with them daily and reduce the anxiety some people may have felt about me moving in and out of their space.

Material Culture: Mask Behaviour

While some elements of my fieldwork have been compromised, new opportunities have arisen. For example, I have had occasion to observe how the rural Japanese community I have been living in has adapted to the public health threat that is Covid-19. I have noticed the rise of social conformity regarding public hygiene, and mask wearing is a significant part of this.

Kinds of masks

The mask is a relatively recent development in public health, originally introduced in Japan during flu outbreaks just before World War One[1]. The masks I refer to are not face masks but ‘surgical masks’ which cover the mouth, the nostrils (depending on how they are worn) and the surrounding area, regardless of the size or fit. These come in an array of categories: unisex, men/women, adult/child, S/M/L. They are available in an astonishingly varied range of materials, brands, character designs, patterns, colours and so on. Some people opt for a utilitarian look, while others seem to want to express themselves, using their masks as a fashion statement. Both are quite commonly observed.

Mask wearing

Because of its coastal topology and a history of fishing spanning hundreds of years, the region is exposed to numerous and diverse diseases and natural disasters. People practice(d) exorcist rituals and the worship of an epidemiological god. However, wearing masks has not historically been one of their practices. Although fishing is no longer economically viable, the rituals and the storytelling around fishing are still actively practiced and maintained on a daily basis. Fishermen’s patriarchal kinship is still dominant, and status and position are inherited by men from prominent families. I do not know if fishermen’s machismo has something to do with not wearing masks, but this is a population proud of being healthy because of its high fish diet, and there are some people who seem to have actively resisted wearing masks so far.

PhD research Chisaki Fukushima in a hand made mask. Credit: Chisaki Fukushima

Masks and sneezing

The common pattern when people sneeze without a mask is to cover their mouth with the palm of their hand. Coughing and clearing the throat are associated with more varied hand gestures, including covering the mouth with the hand either stretched or in a fist. Using a hand to cover one’s mouth remains common in public spaces with or without mask. However, people in the home environment tend to alternate behaviours by not using their hand at all or covering their mouths with their hand slightly further out in front of the mask.

Gendered divisions

I have observed that both purchasing and crafting masks from scratch generally seems to be done by female family members, either the wife of the head of household or the wife of the older generation of the household. Machiko-san, an informant, complained, “There are no masks at the shop so I thought, I must make it rather than exposing (one/my)self to risk without wearing a mask!” She picked a couple of masks out of her beautiful batch for me. When she is praised by people, she demurs, “No, no, no, I just made use of a piece of textile that was of no use at home, handkerchiefs and towels, rather than let them go to waste. They are not authentic at all and only made up by myself (laughter).” I wear her mask every day and sometimes see the same patterns and designs worn by strangers on the street. I assume they were given by Machiko-san. Handmade masks are becoming very popular these days because people stay at home with reduced outside work, and this is something they can make at home. That is an interesting case of people’s needs matching their interests and talents in the face of the Covid-19 emergency.  

Meanwhile, masks are the first thing to run out stock at stores. It is not an exaggeration to say that the everyday discussions start and end with masks. I clearly see the mask becoming perceived to be one of life’s ‘necessities’. The cultural connotations of this are profound, but as yet, unknowable.

[1] Palmer, Edwina; Rice, Geoffrey W.(1992) ‘A Japanese Physician’s Response to Pandemic Influenza: Ijiro Gomibuchi and the “Spanish Flu” in Yaita-Cho, 1918-1919’. Bulletin of the History of Medicine; Baltimore, Md. Vol.66 Issue.4: 560.

How COVID-19 may impact rural communities and what can be done to support them

With the COVID-19 outbreak set to continue for the foreseeable future, the implications for rural communities have received relatively little attention in policy and the mainstream media. This blog summarises some of the main challenges and emphasises the importance of monitoring rural economies and communities going forward.

The present COVID-19 outbreak is affecting every aspect of rural life and as things stand, the duration of its impact is unknown. Rural areas have experienced something similar to this lockdown before, when the countryside was shut down in response to the Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak, although this was not as widespread. There could be lessons to be learnt from that experience and the recovery afterwards.

Whilst certain aspects of rural life could prove to be a benefit at this time, being more sparsely populated areas of the country, other aspects of rural life can make life harder during the lockdown with implications for rural business, agriculture as well as wider societal consequences.

Rural businesses

For the rural economy there are both demand and supply-side shocks. On the demand side the impact will be greatest for those firms (and their supply chains) unable to provide their produce or services to consumers other than within their own business premises. On the supply side the lockdown predominately affects the availability and productivity of labour. Although the majority of UK farms are family farms where the workforce and capital is already on site, or drawn from their immediate rural localities, this will be a particular problem for certain agricultural sectors that rely on a mobile workforce, such as horticulture.

Social consequences

Everyone is feeling the pain of social isolation, both rural and urban. For those groups with limited access to the internet or with poorer mobile signal, this is exacerbated. Elderly people often do not have the skills to use the internet to stay connected, and there are issues of affordability. Some rural areas also have limited connectivity. This will have implications for home-schooling children, the online economy, and staying connected. Going forward, full digital connectivity is essential, regardless of class or place. It is also essential that training is made available so that people have the skills to be able to stay digitally connected.

It is also worth noting that Covid-19 is itself prompting many positive responses of community, neighbour and volunteer support. How public, private and third sectors effectively work together, and crucially with the rural voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) ecosystem, is critical to the immediate emergency response and will be vital to longer-term recovery. Greater support of these are needed.

One interesting aspect of the current lockdown is the social and cultural relationship between rural and urban populations. There has been widespread media coverage of roadside signs asking visitors to stay away from the Lake District and rural Wales, for example, sometimes reinforced by police checkpoints. Visits to second homes as rural sanctuaries have been especially divisive, reflecting the continued concentration of services in urban centres. Many rural residents fear their already limited services will be stretched to breaking point by the influx of urban escapes. This highlights ongoing battles around issues of sustainability of rural communities without the influence of tourism or second home owners.


Looking to the future, there is a need for ongoing and long-term monitoring of business impacts, resilience and recovery. Firms and social enterprises in different sectors and places are impacted and recover at different rates. Experience of FMD and credit crunch/recession showed that for some firms and rural economies the recovery will be swift, for others it will be delayed and this pattern is likely to be repeated in the aftermath of Covid-19.

Many of the core rural institutions also face a struggle for financial survival because of the impacts of Covid-19, including village halls, village shops and pubs. ACRE and the Rural Coalition report[1] that the ability of village halls to weather the storm is uncertain. Support for these institutions is critical to their long-term survival and the help they can give in the recovery phase.

The distance from sources of advice and support, issues with digital access and literacy also highlight a need for the monitoring of the uptake of support to ensure that it is taken and appropriate and equitable assistance. During FMD, when large swathes of the countryside closed for several months due to measures to prevent the spread of the disease, it was apparent that many firms had not sought or obtained special assistance. These included some that were severely impacted, and many were frustrated in their attempts to access aid or fell through the gaps of the support framework.Better monitoring is needed to ensure that this does not happen again.

This blog was summarised from a recent CRE briefing note. Read the briefing note in full here.

[1] Joint letter “Covid-19 and Rural Communities” to DEFRA Secretary of State from the chairs of ACRE, Plunkett Foundation, Rural Services Network and Rural Coalition, 20th March 2020.