'Tis the season of masks in Japan.
No, it's not Halloween nor Mardi Gras and no one is having a ball.
Instead, it's pollen time and for the last few weeks mask-wearers have haunted the Tokyo trains and walkways like phantoms escaped from some ghostly surgery. Eyes run wet and red above white-wrapped faces — tormented souls who are not quite the walking dead, though some may feel that way.
Included among these sufferers is my wife, who wears her mask even to bed. Not that it helps. Only one night in three can she find a good night's rest, in which she dreams of skipping merrily through a forest of cedars with a chainsaw.
She moans she is miserable and gripes about our perpetual lack of tissues, not noticing that her nose-blowing has over-filled every wastebasket in our house. If her discarded tissues were snow, we could ski from room to room.
So it is up to me, a nonsufferer (heh, heh) to bring light to her despair and tell her there is much to be said for wearing a mask.
For one thing, she can claim increased anonymity in a city where, even without masks, the endless crowds dissolve into one bleached mass of nobodies. In such crowds, only the odd and obnoxious stand out. But with her face cloaked in a mask, my wife can now savor the best of both worlds. She can be odd, obnoxious and anonymous all at the same time.
No one, for example, would stand in the train and mouth out the lyrics to tunes on their iPod. That would earn from other passengers both stares and a reasonable distance. But now my wife can enjoy her own lip-synched hour of karaoke on her every journey into the city, with no one around her the wiser. She must only be careful not to bob her head with the beat. Or cut loose with volume during the chorus.
"I feel too crummy to sing," she says.
So? The mask also allows her to be more emotional with her appraisals of other passengers. During pollen free months, she must tolerate all the death-by-a-thousand cuts discourtesies that make most train rides unbearable: the young tough who refuses to give his seat to the elderly, the salesman chatting up his customers via cell phone, the backpacking college kid who body-slams passengers every time he swivels, the headphoned high schooler with his music slipping out to fill the entire train, the salaryman farting off his latest hangover.
At most times, she can only endure all this till her destination. But with a mask, I tell her, she can fight back and add silent exclamation to her endurance.
She can frown, she can bear her teeth, and she can stick out her tongue. She can do it all in any combination. She can mouth out any comment she wishes. Behind the mask, she can transform — like a comic book superhero — into a different sort of woman. One who can now spar hard with the insensitivities of her environment, albeit behind a curtain. The surge of emotion might even help her forget her allergies.
"I won't do that."
Again, so? A mask, she might find, could also deflect the wandering eyes of the male predators that can lurk in crowded trains. A mask — and perhaps what it symbolizes: a rheumy and run-down woman — can keep her safe. A state I support all the way.
"You support me being rheumy and run down?"
"Yes, and you can multiply that effect with a thicker and larger mask."
Such masks cover more and can change the train from a box of men and women to a collection of men, women and the masked — this last group somehow apart from the others and hidden — as if under masks of invisibility.
What's more, there's no need for tissues with a mask either. You can sneeze whenever you like and still keep both hands free.
Of course, my wife has hoped to shed her mask as soon as pollen season wanes. But these days I argue she should keep it. There are far too many pluses.
"Maybe you're right," she says.
"And not only on the train, but at home too."
Uh-oh. But she refuses to tell me how, until I flick out the light and snuggle close for a good-night smooch.
Only to be met by a protecting wall of paper.
"Imagine me," she says. "Sticking out my tongue. In the meantime, don't tease me while I'm sick." Then she rolls over.
Invisible? No. Untouchable? Yes.
Uh, like I said, it's pollen season. Only a little more to go until millions will be free from both their masks and their misery. I guess you can count me among the suffering.
Editor's note: Sincere thanks to the author for his kind permission to republish the above article, which first appeared in his regular Japan Times column "When East Marries West".