Kikuko Tsumura on making masks work. Translated by Polly Barton.

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Last summer, I bought an unbreathable mask. Made of a fabric so comfortable you would forget you were wearing one, the marketing copy boasted, the mask was also seamless and designed not to hurt the ears. I put on my new purchase right away, and headed in the direction of my local convenience store. After walking for less than five minutes I returned home, gasping for breath. This is weird, I thought. With the mask on, I had to inhale in great gulps, and each time I did the fabric would stick to my nose and mouth, blocking them and preventing me from drawing sufficient air. It was definitely comfortable to wear, but it was almost impossible to breathe in.

That turned out to be the only time I wore that mask. A mask that was comfortable to wear but unbreathable: wasn’t that putting the cart before the horse? Were such a thing possible, I suppose trying before buying would have been sensible, but with the world in its current state, permitting members of the general public to try on masks is unthinkable. Which is why, to be a little dramatic about it, leaving aside those made of familiar materials like non-woven fabric, you really don’t know until you put on a mask whether or not you’re going to be able to breathe in it. Maybe the best thing to do when you find a promising-looking mask on sale is to search for it online and check out the reviews, but with such a panoply now on the market, my sense is that the review system probably hasn’t been able to keep up.

In the course of this year, humanity has come to feel a whole range of emotions towards masks: disappointment, rage, joy, vanity. Accompanying this development, some new mask-related jobs have already emerged, and I can think of more that, if they were to emerge around about now, wouldn’t surprise me. Mask reviewers, for instance, who specialise in giving people a rundown of different kinds of masks. In fact, a cursory search on YouTube informs me that someone in the English-speaking world who primarily reviews trainers has now begun posting mask reviews.

Of course, breathability is crucial, but perhaps the next most important factor in assessing a mask is whether or not its elastic will hold. In April 2020, when masks had sold out across Japan, I somehow managed to hunt down and purchase a pack of 100 disposable masks. Of these, one in five had elastic loops of differing lengths on either side, and one in ten had loops that snapped immediately. The whole thing became like playing the lottery. It struck me that, in any other age, a product as brazen as that would never have stood a chance. Each time I went out, I’d take two masks from the pack, one to serve as a spare if the first one was no good. But that still left me defenseless against the situation where one mask’s elastic snapped and the other was lopsided, and so found myself searching, half in tears, for some product that might help me. As if I was going to find such a thing, you might think. But I did: a pair of ‘mask braces’ that you could adjust to a length that suited your face and then clip onto a piece of fabric or similar covering your nose and mouth. The mask braces cost 680 yen a pair. I bought them immediately. Now the elastic on my pack-masks could break as much as it wanted. It seemed highly questionable whether or not these ‘mask braces’ had existed before the pandemic, but the person who had thought them up had done a good job in an unusual situation.

Another new business initiative comes from veteran Japanese electronics firm Sharp (now belonging to the Taiwanese-owned Foxxcon group), which in March 2020 began selling disposable masks manufactured in ‘clean rooms in Japan used for producing liquid crystal panels’, at the relatively costly price of 60 yen each. These masks have proved so popular that when I now enter the word ‘Sharp’ into the Google search bar, the first suggestion alongside it is ‘mask’. ‘I want to buy some as a memento’, a friend told me. Masks, as a memento – the more I thought about it the weirder it seemed. But I wanted to buy some too, and around about the time they first went on sale I would occasionally check the site, only to find they were always sold out. I imagine the manager of the online ordering system for Sharp would never have guessed in 2019 that they’d be involved in the sale of disposable masks.

Of course, as with everything else, when masks become something that everyone wears, the branding issue rears its head. Whether it’s true or not I can’t say, but the most unpleasant article I read in this vein was about the competitiveness of kindergarten mothers over their children’s masks. According to said article from June 2020, top place in the kindergarten mothers’ hierarchy was given to masks made by children’s clothes brands, with masks handmade by mothers in second place; below them were disposable masks, with last place reserved for masks handmade by others or bought from craft sites. The story seemed so absurd that I wanted to believe it was made up by a journalist stuck for something to write. But when I think about these kinds of urban legends, the novelist in me starts to wish that there were a kind of ghost mask-maker out there – someone raking it in by making masks on the mothers’ behalf. Or else someone who would make masterful imitations of the masks produced by children’s clothes brands. And then, in the story I wrote, it would turn out that all the children in the entire kindergarten were wearing masks made by the same ghost mask-maker.

For me, the mask-related job that has imprinted itself most strongly is that of the person who created the TV advert for the 2-Disc BluRay DVD of the 2020 Tour de France. Beginning with a close-up of the face of Tadej Pogačar wearing a yellow mask, the advert then shows a highlight reel of the Tour before ending with a slow-motion shot of Pogačar taking off his mask. In this particular tournament, not only had the 21-year-old Slovenian wrested victory from the hands of fellow Slovenian Primož Roglič; added to this dramatic turn of events, the Tour had taken place during a global pandemic, and, as a result, the whole thing had been imbued with a kind of mythical quality. It seemed to me that the person who made that advert did an incredible job in the circumstances. Watching it truly made me feel that maybe mask-wearing isn’t so bad after all – maybe it’s actually pretty cool.

And here we are, and we continue to wear face-coverings. I just hope that people selling masks this year will produce ones that people can actually breathe in.

Kikuko Tsumura was born in Osaka, Japan, where she still lives today. In her first job out of college, Tsumura experienced workplace harassment and quit after ten months to retrain and find another position, an experience that inspired her to write stories about young workers. She has won numerous Japanese literary awards including the Akutagawa Prize and the Noma Literary New Face Prize, and her first short story translated into English, ‘The Water Tower and the Turtle’, won a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology recognized Tsumura’s work with a New Artist award in 2016. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job is her first novel to be translated into English.

Polly Barton is a translator of Japanese literature and non-fiction, based in the UK. Stories she has translated have appeared in Words Without BordersGranta and The White Review. Full-length translations include Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki and Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda. After being awarded the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, she is currently working on a non-fiction book entitled Fifty Sounds.

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