Life Among the Faceless: Communication in a Masked Era

Society Culture

Born in Egypt, editor and translator Hassan Yūshi acquired Japanese nationality in 2019. A while ago, an elderly woman, assuming he was Japanese, asked him for directions to the Yamanote Line. He found it a heart-warming experience. Here he muses about communication in a society under coronavirus restrictions.

Feeling Invisible

Nearly 10 years have passed since I moved to Japan. I once thought that surely by this point in my life here, I would be a fluent speaker of Japanese, communicating easily with others and learning more about Japanese culture and customs.

How wrong I was! I expected that I might lose some Arabic, my first language, but I’ve had so little daily communication with Japanese people lately that instead I feel like I’m in danger of forgetting how to speak Japanese, which I worked so hard to learn.

Automation is widespread here, and it’s easy to go about your daily business without having to speak to anyone. Whether it’s at a convenience store, a supermarket, or a drugstore, the clerk simply aims a bar code reader at the goods in your basket and the total for your purchase is clearly displayed. You can pay without uttering a word and without even having to remove your headphones. Japan is a place where you can go the whole day without speaking to anyone. I feel like a ghost and wonder if people can actually see me. I sometimes feel as though I don’t exist.

I certainly stand out from the crowd of my fellow Japanese citizens, but lack of conversational exchanges sometimes makes me think I’m invisible.
I certainly stand out from the crowd of my fellow Japanese citizens, but lack of conversational exchanges sometimes makes me think I’m invisible.

Online Communication vs. “Egyptian GPS”

At a previous company where I worked, colleagues sitting right next to each other might “talk” via email. Email does leave a trail and that’s certainly convenient, but I longed just to hear someone say “I sent you the announcement about next week’s meeting. See you then.” That way I could reply, “Thanks, got it.”

Since the pandemic began last year, the public has been asked to stay at home as much as possible, and many businesses have encouraged telework. Everybody communicates via email or social media, and the lack of social connection has left me feeling adrift and alone.

Even though I reply to such communications, it’s hard to know if the senders are actually doing all right, because I can’t actually see them. I’d like to at least hear their voices, so since switching to telework, I always give people a call after emailing them. Talking with my office mates makes me feel a bit less anxious. This past year and a half has been a difficult time, so we need to look out for each other.

Back when I was living in Egypt, car navigation systems were a rarity. When I set out for Cairo airport by car, I got confused as to which expressway exit I needed to use, so I opened the car window and gesticulated to catch a bus driver’s attention. “Which way to the airport?,” I shouted, and he answered back, “I’m headed there now. Follow my bus.” That’s how GPS works in Egypt: human-to-human communication. I wonder what would happen if I did the same in Japan!

Everyone a No-Face?

The pandemic shows no sign of abating. Japan’s vaccination drive has gotten into full swing, but just when we thought we had earned a respite, infections zoomed up again due to the delta variant. The lambda variant, which emerged in Peru, has also made its appearance, so it feels as though we’re in a never-ending nightmare.

Everyone here wears a mask for protection. Masking is required almost everywhere, so people hardly ever talk to each other without face coverings. COVID-19 has robbed us of even that last bit of expressive communication we had left.

People can often read each other’s expressions even without speaking, but when everyone wears a mask, they start looking like No-Face (Kaonashi), the character in the Miyazaki Hayao animated film Spirited Away. It’s impossible to tell whether they are happy or sad, smiling or angry—everybody looks the same.

Spirited Away protagonist Chihiro rides a train with Kaonashi. (Courtesy of Studio Ghibli.)
Spirited Away protagonist Chihiro rides a train with Kaonashi. (Courtesy of Studio Ghibli.)

People in Egypt were not in the habit of wearing masks, but doing so has become mandatory since the pandemic. Masks are obligatory in public places such as government offices, banks, commercial facilities, and on public transport. They are also required even outdoors when social distancing is not possible, and anyone going without a mask in any of those places is liable to be fined on the spot.

But as Egyptians have gotten used to the pandemic, more and more of them are going maskless. When I called my brother in Egypt recently and told him to take care because of the delta variant, he replied that he would be fine, because he always kept a mask in his pocket. Do people there really believe that simply having a mask in their pocket will fend off the virus?

Incidentally, Egypt has recorded just under 300,000 infections so far, and is recently seeing just a few hundred new infections every day. Even though it’s far behind Japan in terms of percentage of the population vaccinated, it’s a fortunate country. I’ve heard that almost no one wears a mask nowadays, and that wearing one can invite curious stares. Family and friends can attend parties and weddings, and concert audiences revel in artists’ performances, all without wearing masks. Are we who reside in Japan the only ones living under an endless state of emergency?

Masks and Identity

In the days before the pandemic, even in Japan I seldom wore a mask. It’s obvious that I don’t have Japanese blood, so I’m not embarrassed if I make a mistake when speaking Japanese, and everyone is friendly and helpful when I’m out shopping or doing errands.

But everyone looks the same nowadays because we’re all wearing masks. With a mask obscuring the lower part of my face and when I’m speaking Japanese, I’ve been mistaken for a native on many occasions. I’ve been treated as 100% Japanese since acquiring Japanese nationality and I feel truly Japanese. That makes me happy but nervous at the same time.

Do I look 100% Japanese, with a mask covering more than half my face?
Do I look 100% Japanese, with a mask covering more than half my face?

One day, at the ticket wicket at Tokyo’s Meiji-jingūmae Station, an elderly woman approached me and asked how to get to the Yamanote Line. Since I was wearing a mask, I assume that she didn’t realize that I was foreign-born. That was my first such experience, so I felt surprised yet happy. I only hesitated for an instant before answering fluently, I hope, as I thought to myself, “Dear woman, you just made my day!”

Humans are said to be social animals. But unlike animals, we have language, and it seems to me that the pandemic has made many people realize the importance of verbal communication.

I believe that Japanese society has relied too much on automation, to the point where people have forgotten that others exist. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to strengthen bonds with friends and family.

It looks as though COVID-19 will be with us for a while yet, so we need to stay strong to overcome all the changes it has brought. We’re all in this together, so let’s support each other, remaining hopeful until we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)

Japanese mask COVID-19 citizenship