I vividly remember my first time in Tokyo: the scramble of black and white masks dotting the Shibuya Crossing in the warm rain. As an American, I had not grown up in a culture where wearing masks in public was common practice, and this scene made a strong impression.
In a sense, the ubiquity of face masks in Japan and Asia was a mysterious quirk. After asking Japanese friends, I’ve since learned of the various reasons masks are worn from protecting against illness, pollution, and allergies, to providing additional warmth, or to put on in place of lipstick.
Fast forward, pause
Fast forward three years to today — the age of COVID-19 and “The Great Pause.”
In the face of a global public health crisis, people all over the world from Asia to America are wearing face masks. The primary purpose is clear: to prevent the spread of this novel coronavirus that has no cure or vaccine (yet), and which is still causing thousands of deaths a day. Masks are no longer the mystery; the virus is.
Interestingly, some experts say that the social habit of wearing face masks and other Japanese customs, such as and bowing instead of shaking hands, might hinder transmission of the virus, but the extent of this is still unknown.
The struggle with shortages
As many have seen, soaring demand for surgical masks has caused major shortages worldwide, even in hospitals where masks are most urgently required. in Tokyo, lines of people have queued outside pharmacies at dawn with the hopes of purchasing their ration (only one mask can be sold per person to prevent hoarding).
According to an article in The Mainichi, “the Japanese government is still struggling to combat supply shortages of face masks…more than three months after the items began to vanish from store shelves in the country. Fierce global competition to secure sufficient mask supplies is also driving up their prices.”
A survey conducted on April 18 and 19 by the newspaper found that 28% of respondents were using their masks only once and then throwing them away, while 45% said they were reusing masks by washing or disinfecting them. Another 15% said they were handcrafting masks.
Single-use masks: good for public health, bad for the environment
The commercial single-use mask sold in plastic, while helpful in slowing the spread of disease, is not good for the environment, especially our oceans.
I’ve spotted a few masks washed up on the beach in Okinawa, and I was especially struck by the sighting of some 100 masks washed up on a beach near Hong Kong. To echo the words of the conservationist Gary Stokes:
“In the future, we need to make sure we’re ready for pandemics like this and that we’re ready to deal with them in an environmental way; it doesn’t have to be one at the expense of the other.”
Reusable cloth masks: the more sustainable solution
The silver lining to this mask shortage is the sudden need to make an easy, more sustainable alternative. The solution spans beyond Asia with waves of people worldwide finding creative ways to make cloth masks from home. These are more sustainable than most store-bought masks (if you can find any) as they can be reused after washing.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the use of cloth face coverings, though not as effective as N-95 respirators, can help slow the spread of COVID-19. Creating cloth masks also helps reserve critical supplies like surgical masks and N-95 respirators for healthcare workers.
Tenugui: the original gangster of cloth
The CDC gives easy no-sew instructions for making a mask with a bandana, which I have adapted to the Japanese warrior way of using a “tenugui.” Tenugui is a traditional light cotton towel once worn by ninjas, kendo warriors, samurai, and still used to this day.
The vintage wood print from the Edo-period illustrates the various ways tenugui was used during the classic era: towels, table cloths, handkerchiefs, flags, scarves, baskets, gift wrapping, and various neck, head and face coverings. This ancient handicraft of tenugui has no limits.
Let’s make a mask!
If you can get your hands on an authentic tenugui (or any light cotton cloth 35cm x 90cm), try the tutorial below and let me know how it feels in the comments! You can also refer to the original CDC instructions and make your mask with a square cloth (like a furoshiki or bandana), if that’s what you have at home. According to the WHO, when used as a protection against Covid-19, the tenugui should always be washed with hot water (at least 56 degrees Celsius / 133 Fahrenheit).
Have fun and stay safe my dear warriors!
- Tenugui (or other cloth like a furoshiki, bandana or scarf). I used our bicycle-themed tenugui I bought while on a bike trip in Okayama prefecture.
- Hair ties or rubber bands
- Coffee filter or or paper towel (for extra protection)
- Fold the cloth in half, bringing the top edge of the cloth to meet the bottom edge of the cloth.
- Fold the cloth in half again, bringing one side of the cloth to meet the other side
- Insert a coffee filter or paper towel inside the fold for extra protection and comfort.
- Put the folded cloth through the center of two hair ties (or rubber bands). Place hair ties about 15-16 cm (or 6 inches) apart.
- Take the left side and the right side of the cloth and fold each side toward the middle and tuck the sides into each other.
- The cloth should now be a continuous loop since the left and right sides have been tucked into each other.
- To wear the mask, secure the hair ties around your ears.
- You want it to fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face. Make sure you can breathe without restriction
- After wearing, wash with hot water and laundry detergent. Hang dry to preserve the beauty of the fabric.
JULIA // Tokyo