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A first-timer’s guide to Japanese surgical face masks

Everyone’s sniffling, snuffling and snorting their way through winter, and it seems that much of the population of Tokyo is wearing a surgical face mask to keep their colds to themselves, or protect themselves from catching a nasty bug.  I decided to try some masks out for myself, so went down to my local convenience store this evening and bought some different models for evaluation purposes.

Unicharm easy fit

I bought three models that were prominently on display at my local Lawson Station, and decided to review them all – Choice magazine style – based on three important criteria:

  1. Features – What does the packet list as the selling points of this model?  Will it keep me safe from nasty germs?
  2. Comfort  – Does it feel comfortable when being worn?
  3. Style – Does it look good?  Can I hit the streets of Tokyo with confidence?  Will people give me approving looks on the subway?

I awarded up to 5 points for each category, with each mask being awarded a potential 15 points.  Of course, I had to model them to test their comfort and style, so the results of my survey have been uploaded here for you all to see.

Model #1: Daisan brand cotton gauze mask

Daisan cotton gauze mask

  • Description:  High quality cotton gauze mask.  Comes in a pack with two cotton filters – one to insert now and a plastic wrapped spare for when you really need it.  Thick rectangular cotton wadding mask, with elastic ear hooks.
  • Price: 137 yen (single pack)
  • Size: 9.5 x 13.5 cm
  • Country of manufacture: Japan
  • Features:  “Sanitary!” screams the yellow bubble on the top right of the package.  This mask is advertised as having three key features:
    • Easy to breath – good for commuting
    • Soft on the skin – 100% high quality cotton
    • Doesn’t hurt your ears – soft elastic ear hooks
  • Comment:  Reading the features, I expected more before I opened up the package.   The cotton feels soft, but there’s a lack of sophistication about this mask, both in shape and technological features.  Compared to the other two, this is just a rectangular piece of heavy wadding to put over your mouth and nose.
  • Score:
    • Features:  2 out of 5
    • Comfort: 2 out of 5
    • Style: 1 out of 5
    • Total:  5 out of 15.
  • Evaluation:  Too small to cover a foreigner’s big nose adequately, fiddly filter system, no snug fit with gaps around the edges, and it’s just plain ugly.  The most expensive at 137 yen per mask, it may just win some environmental points back if it turns out to be washable and longer lasting with its second filter.

Daisan cotton gauze mask


Model #2: Kowa brand “three-dimensional” mask

Kowa pleated mask

  • Description:  Hospital green coloured shapeable mask made from polyesther & polypropylene, with pleats for vertical spread and a semi-rigid bendable nose rim for better shape.  Thin material with claimed technological benefits.  Aimed at preventing colds as well as hayfever.
  • Price: 198 yen (twin pack) (99 yen per piece)
  • Size: 9.0 x 17.5 cm
  • Country of manufacture: Japan
  • Features:  The features claimed by this mask go straight to the technologically-conscious – or those afraid of very tiny things – as it claims to “Cut 99.9% of tiny airborne particles, down to 0.0001 millimetres in size!”  whilst reminding us that the influenza virus is 0.0001mm and pollen can be as small as 0.03mm.  This mask has a long list of claims, including:
    • New rigid shape, that fits snugly.  Leaves room around the mouth making it easy to talk whilst wearing, but no gaps around the edges.
    • Extremely thin filter cuts 99.9% of tiny airborne particles
    • Doesn’t fog your glasses with the semi-rigid bendable nose rim
    • Soft type ear cords.
  • Comment:  This is the mask for maximum acreage.  The pleats mean that the mask will vertically cover more of your face than seems necessary, from below your eves to under your chin.  The bendable nose rim is meant to shape over the wearer’s nose, and stop condensed breath from escaping upwards and fogging spectacle lenses, although perhaps it’s not so snug on big-nosed foreigners, as it sometimes easily slides up my nose and partially covers my eyes.  However, it’s nice and light compared to the cotton gauze mask.
  • Score:
    • Features:  4 out of 5
    • Comfort: 3.5 out of 5
    • Style: 1.5 out of 5
    • Total:  9 out of 15.
  • Evaluation:  Sometimes sliding up and covering my eyes, this mask takes over your whole face.  The hospital green at least is a noticeable difference to all the plain white masks out there, but perhaps a range of fluoro coloured masks would sell better with children.  Nice and snug around the sides and chin, I still doubt I’d wear this monster on the subway.  Along with wearing motorcycle helmets, this mask would be banned from being worn in banks and airports in the Western world.

Kowa pleated mask


Model #3:  Unicharm brand rigid mask

Unicharm easy fit

  • Description:  A lightweight polypropylene/polyesther mask with a rigid horizontal fold down the front, which creates the space-age looking mask.  Non-eslastic ear-hooks and a rigid shape create a distinctive look in the fight against the common cold.
  • Price: 248 yen (three pack) (83 yen per piece)
  • Size: “normal size”
  • Country of manufacture: Japan
  • Features:  : Like the Kowa brand mask, this one also lists its claimed technological achievements.  There are scientific looking diagrams on the back of the pack that describe how the microbes are kept out.  Selling features include:
    • “Double block” (whatever that means) effect creates a tight barrier.  No gaps around the edges.
    • The filter and space around the mouth make it easy to breath
    • Keeps the throat moist
    • Soft on the ears
  • Comment: Someone has designed this mask with the style-conscious in mind, although whether style is ever achieveable in a surgical mask remains a strong sticking point.  It’s snug, lightweight, and distinctive in shape.  The size is more minimalist, and it feels comfortable around the back of my ears.  A small difficulty is that it’s a tricky to unfold when taking it out of the pack and then stretch it over your nose to hook behind your ears.
  • Score:
    • Features:  4 out of 5
    • Comfort: 4.5 out of 5
    • Style: 2.5 out of 5 (This is off the scale as far as surgical masks are concerned…)
    • Total:  11 out of 15.
  • Evaluation: Although the name “Unicharm”  is certainly never going to be fitting for any surgical face mask, this is the clear winner of the three evaluated, and yet the cheapest by unit price.  Look out office, here I come on Monday!

Unicharm easy fit


  1. Jill says:

    I can only but laugh. I’m afraid they are ALL very unattractive, but guess that is not the point. I still want to know if you wear them if you have germs or if you don’t want germs. Please do a survey. AND how do us westerners blow the nose? Then again we know you just sniff.

  2. Jonno says:

    perhaps add a suggestion of blood spatter…! V funny blog my friend. FYI Something weird happened to the text on the previous posts (the face mask one looks fine…well at least the text does ;-), the text column is very narrow for some reason…

    Also I remember a brochure about the buddha at Nara being heavily qualified “largest indoor bronze buddha” or something similar…got me thinking there were other, plastic, stone, quartz, wooden, generally outdoor buddhas lurking around the next town…

  3. Bruce says:

    I don’t think you have enough things to keep you occupied!

    What about a score for durability – number of possible times used?

  4. Jonno says:

    subject for a new Stephen King novel?

  5. JapanSoc says:

    A self-deprecating face mask road test…

    Awarding points to the best face mask by features, comfort and of course style – it’s time to revisit a face mask road test that I carried out at the beginning of this year, now that I’ve noticed that a strong face mask comeback on the streets of Tok…

  6. Todd says:

    It’s that time of year again. Just a reminder out there for those with minimal scientific backgrounds:

    Cotton masks offer no protection. To be avoided unless you are merely using them to follow orders, and not to protect yourself and others.

    Synthetic fiber masks offer some protection, but some viruses will pass through the mask, and all airborne particles can pass through small gaps in the seal around the edges of the mask. The only real protection is a respirator. Try wearing one of those out in public! That’s a candid camera video from Japan I’d love to see…

    Also, masks lose effectiveness as they get wet from moisture in your breath. They should be changed several times a day to offer what little protection they do.

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