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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.

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