A man in a medical mask passes in front of an arcade in Osaka, Japan, at the height of the Kansai A/H1N1 Influenza scare, May 2009.

A man in a medical mask passes in front of an arcade in Osaka, Japan, at the height of the A/H1N1 Influenza scare, May 2009.

I’ve always suspected that timing was my forte, and this summer trip to Japan didn’t do much to disprove that tentative hypothesis. I arrived at the Kansai airport just as the illness formerly known as “swine flu” was sweeping the nation. Specifically, the western (Kansai) part of the nation, and specifically called 新型インフルエンザ (new-type influenza). Personal health questionnaires were handed out. Haphazard hazmat-suited officials took the questionnaires along with our temperatures. All this took about 30 minutes and wasted about a half-an-hour of my day. I assumed it was common knowledge that one is contagious days before one shows flu-like symptoms. These inspections were canceled a week after I arrived. See? Timing.

Masks were provided by a pleasant-looking gentleman upon arrival. I quickly realized these were the latest fashion accessory; they couldn’t possibly have been intended for influenza prevention. News about new possible H1N1 cases plagued the airwaves more than the actual flu. Media obsession engendered a national paranoia. Schools were closed. Pharmacies and convenience stores in Osaka were all sold out of masks (Chinese cities even donated masks to ease the shortage in Osaka). I thought of auctioning off the mask I received at the airport (great condition, never opened!).

The week after a Tokyo schoolgirl was diagnosed with the H1N1 flu, masks began to crop up around Tokyo as well, though significantly less in number than in Osaka and Hyogo prefectures—the initial hot-spots of the infection. The week after the first case of the H1N1 flu was detected in Tokyo, masks began to appear in greater numbers there as well. Generally, in densely populated Japan (Tokyo is about 35 million people) donning a mask when one feels ill is common, so they probably cannot all be attributed to the flu scare.

A woman in a mask strolls down Omotesando in Tokyo, May 2009, a week after the first case of the A/H1N1 flu was detected in Tokyo.

A woman in a mask strolls down Omotesando in Tokyo, May 2009, a week after the first case of the A/H1N1 flu was detected in Tokyo.

Nevertheless one got the distinct impression of the value placed on appearing to be doing something about a perceived problem. You have to look like you care, regardless of how silly the threat. The belief in following advice handed down by people who “know best” chugs along. Hence the masks, the hazmat suits, and media attention. The citizen donned the mask of conscientiousness. And I began to suspect that an ailment much worse than any flu named after an animal had afflicted the Land of the Rising Sun.