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Surgical masks don't protect you against airborne viruses, but if you wear one when you have a cold it does help protect other people from viruses in your snot/water particles.

The facts about this are fairly well known in Japan now (although there may still be people who wear masks in the misguided hope that they won't catch other people's colds despite), so it's not very accurate to try to imply that use of surgical masks in Japan is purely due to some sort of failure to understand germ theory or something like that.

And if ever you visit Japan, you’ll see a significant number of people pull down their masks to unleash their coughs and sneezes completely uncovered in a crowded area. Covering coughs and sneezes isn’t really a concept here, and when it’s done, it’s done with bare hands which most people don’t wash during their bathroom visits.

People wear masks here during pollen season or handling dusty/dirty things, to indicate to others that they may be sick, or to soak up their runny nose drippings. But for the most part, like many aspects of society, they serve only a decorative purpose.

That's pretty interesting. I don't know anything about Japan really, but having lived in Korea, I can say with certainty that Koreans wear masks when they are sick to prevent spreading it to other people and not for decorative purpose. If you have even the slightest sniffle or cough and don't wear one, people are going to think negatively of you. I've never seen someone pull their mask down to cough or sneeze.

A more recent development is decorative designs, and that's been popularized a bit by kpop stars in music videos, but no one wears a mask in Korea in real life just for decoration. The only time outside that is when yellow sand is bad.

That is not characteristic of why they wear masks. And at least a lot of other less crowded parts of Asia are just meme-ing Japn, as they do for a lot of other stuff as well.

I was on a short trip there and caught a cold, and an okder businessman gave me one of his masks because he saw I was struggling to contain my coughs with just my hands.

It gets very crowded in Tokyo, so these masks are essential during cold and flu season.

In my region's public elementary schools, kids are taught to "vampire cough".

I wonder how it's effectiveness compares to that of wearing a mask.

This has been studied. Coughing into your elbow is better than coughing into your hands, but not as good as wearing a mask. Wearing a mask doesn't completely protect the people around you (unless you're using something more than just a basic surgical/dust/pollen mask), but it does help a lot.

I came to say the same thing. From my understanding, people in HK wear the mask largely to protect their colleagues and friends when they themselves are sick (or even potentially sick, eg when one of their family is).

The article didn't delve sufficiently into that, and even implied the opposite motivation with a (snide) parenthesis ("(Surgeons use them to protect patients from their mouth-borne germs, not the other way around.)").

I believe that the parenthetical comment wasn't intended to be snide, and wasn't trying to imply that Eastern mask-wearers don't understand this. I think it was more to explain it to Western readers, as this is something that is very commonly misunderstood, at least in the US.

Ah, maybe you're right.

"The reality is that the woven-cloth surgical masks provide minimal protection from environmental viruses anyway. (Surgeons use them to protect patients from their mouth-borne germs, not the other way around.)"

This is stated multiple times in the article.

Our local clinic in the US has actually started a policy of asking visitors to wear masks if they think they might be sick.

Seems sensible enough.

That sounds great. It's horrible being in public transport (Europe) with a compromised immune system.

Two weeks after I went on my medicine someone walked past in a close to empty train and sneezed big lumps of snot onto my face.

Every hospital and clinic has them available at the entrance where I am in the US.

I'd be curious how effective any of this is, but that would be hard to test.

Get a sample of ill people, compare the amounts of particles excreted in to the air with and without the mask. You will require a decent sized n, but it doesn’t seem insanely high.

They also serve privacy purposes and have also become a rather cool fashion accessory:

[0] http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=face+mask+fashion

I think they will go quite nicely with decorated AR glasses once those become commonplace, for a combination that would thwart mass face-detection once that's commonplace as well.

And does it work? Like is there a materially lower prevalence of cold/flu in Japan than in countries of similar climate?

It could be done more out of politeness than effectiveness in reducing transmission. It would make a lot of sense in places with a high population density.

Surgical masks don't protect you against airborne viruses

Maybe not, but they should be great at protecting you from tiny droplets of fluid (above a certain size) from coughing and sneezing. I would think that alone should cut down on the risk of getting sick.

That's what "airborne" means. Nobody thinks viruses are riding nitrogen molecules.

My wife stays the FUCK away from people wearing them - she thinks they are all ebola carriers. I think that alone is what keeps the mask wearers healthy - all the americans think the mask wearer is the sick one.

that's absolutely true. Well, not the ebola part.

It's one of the examples I use to demonstrate differences between Western and Eastern culture:

in the West we would only wear a mask if we were worried about being infected with other people's germs.

In the East they wear a mask to indicate that they are unwell and to stop other people from being infected with their germs.

Yeah, wearing a mask won't really protect you from catchin something, but it will reduce the odds of you transmitting the disease to others around you.

She would avoid me like the plague during allergy season, then! If I don't wear a pollen mask during that time, I will literally never stop sneezing.

Kind of a tangent, but in Japan what's the situation with taking time off work if you are ill and sick pay?

I can only give you my experience (working as a civil servant, teaching English in a public high school). People generally have 20 days of vacation and 20 days of sick leave per year. You can get more sick leave if there is a good reason (i.e. if you are hospitalised), but at some point I think disability kicks in. I can tell you (since I now have my own company) that disability insurance is private, so the details will vary. There is also no requirement for an employer to have disability insurance, although I'm pretty sure they do in the government (I had a couple of friends on disability for a couple of years).

Generally speaking, people do not take time off in their first year of employment (either vacation time of sick leave). If you are very ill, you need to go to the doctor and get a note. This includes the flu. Basically, you go to the doctor and if the doctor thinks there is a chance that you might have the flu, then you you'll get a note.

People go to the doctor when they even just have the sniffles. There are clinics everywhere and walk in appointments are the norm. You just go in, fill in forms (if you aren't already a patient there), wait for an hour or so, talk to the doctor for 10 minutes and then leave. If the doctor says you shouldn't go to work, then "It can't be helped" and you can't go to work. Pretty much that's the end of it.

However it can get more complicated than that. If you are ill a lot, you will generally get some criticism. Your presence is considered necessary and so if you aren't there, then other people have to put in extra work (whether that's really true or not depends on the job, I guess). Most people will use a vacation day rather than a sick day if they are ill. However, that's in the context that people don't generally use all their vacation days, so it's pretty difficult to say.

For me, I underwent minor surgery while I was working at the school and took 2 sick days (one to go to the hospital when I was very ill and one to have the surgery). One of my colleagues complained, but my department head protected me. Probably sounds very weird, right? But that's the way it is. Me taking a day off meant more work for the colleague, but the department head decided it would be better in the long run if I didn't die ;-)

Again, I have to stress that the time off thing is very different than other places. When I got married, I went to my department head to see if there was a way I could take a day off. He said, "Absolutely. Would you like the morning or afternoon off?" I ended up getting married on a public holiday.

I had a colleague who had a bad back (he used to be a pro wrestler in Mexico of all things -- Japanese guy). He had to have a ton of surgery (over several years). He was gone at least 6 months without going on disability, but then eventually the school had to ask him to go on disability so that they could hire a temporary replacement. On the other extreme, I knew someone with cancer who had to go for regular treatments and the school asked if there was some way he could schedule his treatments so that they didn't interfere with his work schedule. So it's not at all what you might imagine (either one way or the other). Sometimes they bend over backwards to help you out and sometimes they make seemingly petty demands. It depends a lot on your management and the organisation. And sometimes it even depends on your colleagues because if they complain about you a lot, then the department head has to do something to fix the problem. In Japan, forcing your department head to fix a problem is pretty well the best way to get in their bad books -- you are supposed to take responsibility and find solutions to problems yourself.

And I think that last sentence really sums up my experience with that kind of thing in Japan. Creating problems (even if they aren't your fault) that others have to fix is just tremendously bad form. This puts a lot of pressure on you do find a solution -- and often that solution is "I'll go to work even if I'm ill".

Thank you; I should've learned about Japanese work culture earlier. (The only thing I'd heard, for a long time, was how to respectfully receive and give business cards.)

One time, while I was a fairly new high-level engineer of a university tech spinoff that had been acquired by a Japanese company, I got a bad ear infection that took several doctor visits to diagnose (then was cured trivially). As perhaps a natural "company man", I felt even worse about my performance nosediving, than I did about the symptom misery. No one was happy about it.

I did recover a tiny bit of the goodwill I lost, when I was working in the empty office over some major holiday (Christmas break?), and the Japanese executive appeared at some point, and asked why I was there. I said I'd been sick, and was trying to make it up. He seemed to approve.

That time, or a similar after-hours occasion around then, the Japanese executive asked me where one can get food, so I started telling him directions to nearby grocery stores and restaurants, and he didn't seem to understand, so I went into increasing detail with the directions and other options. Years later, I learned that there's some Japanese office culture around going out after work with colleagues, and I suppose he might've been suggesting that, but not directly enough for oblivious me.

Thank you very much for this explanation. It reminded a bit when I read The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict. I visited Japan (and stayed with locals all the time) this last year after reading that book and I didn't see most of these rigid descriptions Ruth Benedict explained there, but I felt like they have this kind of work culture that is way different than mine in Spain.

You guys are probably at the other ends of the spectrum, and not only geographically :p

While I find it funny and I like those jokes, I think your comment implies a bit of ignorance. You should look for a list of countries ordered by their GDP (PPP) per hour worked. Spain's productivity is a bit higher than Japan's (I'm not an expert, so maybe there are more technical data to check out). Here you have a couple of links:

List of countries by GDP (PPP) per hour worked: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)...

Problem of productivity in Spain - compared with Germany: http://www.caixabankresearch.com/en/la-productividad-del-tra...

And of course we like our siesta and enjoy our nice weather! haha

I know, I was just joking. I've been to Spain and I know that the whole "sleeping at work" stereotype is based on things from 200 years ago :)

Thank you for sharing your experience.

It seems like Japan would benefit greatly from telecommuting. (it is a developed economy with well built telecommunication infrastructure, affinity for robotics/etc).

is there such a trend in that country?

I haven't heard of anything like that. I think it is inevitable eventually but it's really antithetical to the culture at the moment. Everything is done really cooperatively so the idea of being alone working at home would probably incite a few heart attacks :-)

What's really interesting to me on the opposite side is that I've never heard of pair programming in Japan. I really should go on the speaker circuit here because it seems like the perfect Japanese technique.

Anyway, if someone wants to start a risky startup for the Japanese market, some kind of software that enables collaborative work while telecommuting is probably necessary. It could probably make a lot of money eventually, but risky in the short term until something like that is accepted.

As a different data point, in HK you start out with 7 days annual leave (in addition to public holidays), and after 2 years with the company that increases by a day per year every year, up to a maximum of 14 days annual leave after you've been with the firm for 9 years. (Companies can offer better conditions, needless to say.)

One also accrues paid sick days (2 per month initially, later more).

Depending on the company you either take personal leave, dipping into your paid vacation, or you have a day worth of pay reduced from your salary.

The companies that give you actual sick days are rare, but thankfully more of them are popping up as the old guard changes. one notable exception from memory is that kids coming here to teach English get unusually cushy conditions.

Just a quick comment: as I noted in my other post it is normal for companies to give 20 days of sick leave. Often you can't take them, though ;-) I don't know a single person working as an employee of a large company in Japan that doesn't get 20 days of sick leave. But those stresses are very important. Most foreigners do not get permanent jobs and are not employees. They are contract workers, who get no sick leave. The number of contract workers in Japan is growing, though.

This is very true. I’m the last few jobs I worked here the ratio of full time to contract was shifting significantly to contract (though working in IT my perspective may be skewed).

Is also worth nothing that work laws in Japan are flimsy at best do “black” companies get away with a lot of shady stuff. Even if you have 20 days leave on paper, depending on the company the corporate culture can be very pushy about your not taking them.

I lucked out a few times and found places that were good about it.. but I’ve heard some real horror stories :/

So in that sense, it's a bit like my experience in the software industry? My experience is that while people get a set amount of PTO per year, they rarely take it. Not because it's disapproved of, but because of the price you have to pay in work backlog when you return.

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