TOKYO -- On the sidewalks and the subways it's clear: Japan is becoming a sea of surgical masks. It's about pollen, germs and even a little about China, its polluting rival across the sea.
Simple masks. High-tech masks. Scented masks. Masks in pink and purple. Yano Research Institute says it's a $274-million market. The industry leader, Kowa Co., says it plans to quintuple production this year.
"It seems about half the people outside are wearing masks now," said businessman Masahiko Haneda, whose boss has told him to wear a mask at work whenever he gets a cold.
Hay fever is the biggest reason for the coverings. Japan's pollen levels are five times higher than they were last spring, thanks to a hot summer last year and a spike in temperatures this month that has caused cedar and hinoki cypress trees to release their pollen all at once.
"The pollen is really bad this year," said Takeshi Nunomura, who said he coughs constantly at night and can't sleep if he doesn't wear a mask during the day.
Germs are another reason. When Japanese catch a cold, they often wear masks to keep from coughing or sneezing on others in packed trains and in the office. And some healthy people wear masks to keep from inhaling those germs.
This year, there's the added alarm about tiny particles of pollution called PM2.5, which are about 1/30th the width of a human hair, and can penetrate deep into the lungs. While the Environment Ministry says the level of PM2.5 particles is about the same as last year, the media has played up the dangers. That has upped demand for the masks.
-- The Associated Press