The Invisible Toll of COVID Policy: Seniors Now Need to Re-Learn How to Smile as Country Eases Mask Restrictions


Up until the middle of this March, Japan’s government continued to recommend masking up in public settings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. On the surface of things, this shouldn’t have mattered much; masks have been a normal part of Asian life for quite some time now, particularly during cold and flu season or when air pollution and allergens are especially bad.

Not that much has changed; as notes, “In practice, a large majority of people in Japan continue to wear masks in most indoor situations, on public transportation and in busy city streets. Even in less crowded outdoor situations, a considerable number of people continue to wear masks.”

That means essentially more than three years behind a mask in public settings — far longer than an air pollution spell or any kind of flu season the Japanese people have seen in the past. If one wanted to look at the toll it’s taken on the Japanese people mentally, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better headline than this one: “Many turn to smiling lessons as society begins to go maskless.”

Last Monday, the Asahi Shimbun — one of the largest national papers in Japan — looked at the thoroughly dispiriting concept of a group of 37 people in Tokyo, including many seniors, taking “a smiling lesson to prepare for taking off their masks in public following three years of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The instruction was held in the Akabane district in Tokyo’s Kita Ward on May 7, the day before the reclassification of COVID-19 to a less-severe category that includes the seasonal flu,” the outlet reported.

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The participants, led by 49-year-old instructor and “smile trainer” Keiko Kawano, studied their grins using hand mirrors. The event was held at an elderly relief center in the Japanese city.

“With mask wearing having become the norm, people have had fewer opportunities to smile, and more and more people have developed a complex about it,” Kawano said.

“Moving and relaxing the facial muscles is the key to making a good smile.”

The act of smiling, she added, “not only makes a good impression on others and facilitates communication but also has the effect of making yourself feel more positive.

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“I want people to spend time consciously smiling for their (physical) and mental well-being.”

She also noted that, after the country announced it was reclassifying COVID-19 in February, requests for smiling lessons rose 4.5-fold over last year.

“Smiles are essential for maskless communication,” said Yasuko Watarai, a participant. “I want to apply what I learned today at volunteer activities and other gatherings.”

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Now, taken in isolation, the need for smiling lessons for the elderly as Japan looks to ditch the masks could be indicative of mere cultural differences. However, numerous studies have documented the negative impact the social isolation caused by COVID-19 has wrought.

One study “found that social isolation and loneliness are major risk factors that have been linked with poor physical and mental health status: increased blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diminished immune system functioning, depression, anxiety, poorer cognitive functioning, increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and mortality.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found “nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated.”

Meanwhile, a University College London study found that those over the age of 55 were particularly prone to have mobility issues and loneliness if they worked from home as opposed to commuting.

These were the people we were told we needed to lock down and mask up to protect. Now, three years on, we see that — at least in one corner of the world — they need to be taught to re-learn smiling. If you needed an example of how horribly we’ve failed at maintaining a balance between physical health and mental health during the pandemic, you could hardly do better than that.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture