As new cases of coronavirus continue to rise in a number of countries around the world, worrying divides have begun to form as those opposed to mask-wearing decry recommendations and requests to cover their faces to help stop the spread of the virus.
In Japan, mask-wearing is not mandatory but it doesn’t really have to be, as masks have been a part of everyday life here even before coronavirus. However, while the large majority of the public is masking up during the pandemic, a small faction of anti-maskers has appeared, and they’re not just opposed to masks — they are against any form of restraint in regards to stopping the spread of the virus.
The group is being led by YouTuber and leader of the Popular Sovereignty Party Masayuki Hiratsuka, who ran an unsuccessful campaign in the July Tokyo Gubernatorial Election. His campaign slogan, “Coronavirus is just a cold” failed to gain traction with voters, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t picked up followers who agree with his views.
On Aug 9, a number of party supporters gathered for a “Cluster Protest” outside Shibuya Station, where people held up placards that read “Masks, Social Distancing, The ‘Three Cs’, Self-restraint Not Necessary." The group, which included women with babies and toddlers, were all unmasked for the three-hour-plus-long protest outside the station.
In a YouTube video uploaded to his channel a day before the protest, Hiratsuka encouraged people to join him in “hijacking” the Yamanote Line with unmasked passengers after the demonstration, so that passengers with masks would “feel stupid” for wearing them.
News of the planned demonstration on the Yamanote Line sparked warnings on social media before the event, and “Cluster Festival” started trending on Twitter as people advised others to stay away from the Yamanote Line at around 8 p.m., the time at which the “hijacking” was scheduled to take place.
The below notice warned that a group of people without masks might cause a disturbance on the Yamanote Line, creating a “Three Cs” environment that the government has asked people to avoid.
While close to 100 people were expected to take to the Yamanote Line without masks, videos and photos showed the group accompanying Hiratsuka was considerably smaller, suggesting roughly about a dozen people took part. Among them were these two, who wore shirts calling coronavirus “fake news” and 5G a “murder weapon”.
While there are no fines for not wearing masks in Japan, the act of not wearing them, especially in a crowded, confined space like a train carriage is strictly frowned upon. And as Hiratsuka told people to expect a second “Cluster Festival” on the Yamanote Line in future, people in Japan and abroad were quick to condemn his actions.
“If a cluster does come out of this they should all be denied the use of the public health service.”
“These people are similar to terrorists and extremists.”
“What’s frightening is that adults are encouraging their children to take part.”
“They’re acting like they’re in a cult.”
“Even if you just have a cold, you should wear a mask.”
Wearing a mask when one is sick is so ingrained in Japanese culture that the majority of the population don’t give mask-wearing a second thought at the first sign of a sniffle, let alone when there’s a deathly pandemic sweeping the nation.
While this group of anti-maskers say they want to make waves and challenge the status quo, Hiratsuka appears to be more concerned about being able to attend “live houses” (small live concert venues) which were closed during the height of the first wave earlier this year. Despite expressing dismay over the live house situation on social media, starting up a movement on the premise that coronavirus is “just a cold” and shunning the use of masks isn’t going to bring his favorite bands back to the stage any sooner.
After all, in Japan it’s widely understood that wearing a mask doesn’t just protect you — it protects others, so not wearing one is like giving the middle finger to everyone around you.
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