Japan has long been ultra-conscious about public health – so it made sense that while the rest of the world was debating the legitimacy of vaccines and mask mandates, the Japanese found it easier to adjust to life post-Covid. Wearing masks was already a norm in the country, and their measures even managed to curb the pandemic early on compared to the rest of the world.
But three years after the pandemic, as the island nation finally eases its restrictions – citizens are facing another problem. After years of vigorously wearing masks, most people have forgotten how to smile.
Many are turning to ‘smile coaches’ to re-learn the art of smiling and gain their confidence back. But this ‘smile tutoring’ surprisingly isn’t a post-Covid creation. Smile instructor Keiko Kawano, a radio personality-turned-entrepreneur started smile coaching six years ago. She runs two companies, Egaoiku, which translates as “smile education” in English, and the Egao Trainer Association. According to the New York Times, Kawano noticed her smile began to fade when she stopped doing voice articulation exercises. This inspired her to learn how facial muscles work and use the knowledge to reanimate her smile. She has helped over 4000 people regain their smiles under the motto, “More smile, more happiness.”, along with 20 trainers who run classes all over Japan.
She emphasizes the importance of egao, which means “smiling face” in Japanese, and the positive outcomes, both in mindset and appearance, that come from training and learning to smile. As reported by the Japan Times, around 20 people gathered for a smile training session in Yokohama, the day before the country eased mask-wearing guidelines, in hopes of preparing themselves for the “new normal” of life without face coverings. These sessions seem to be more popular among women. The classes typically begin with tension-relieving facial stretches before participants gaze into their handheld mirrors and flex parts of their faces as the coach instructs.
Smiling is not culturally significant in Japan as it may be in other countries. Japanese people traditionally don’t smile with their teeth, and not at strangers or on government IDs. Some may also consider doing so as rude. So it’s fair that it may not come easily to them – as habitual as it is to us.
Before the pandemic, the kind of customers who would seek Kawano’s services were those who wanted to learn how to best present a smile for professional photo shoots with family or for better luck in dating, or to reverse the look of ageing. Now, they’re also seeing more people just hoping to get more confidence for the post-mask era. Masking guidelines began to change in the country as of May last year, and between last November and January, Kawano received three times the amount of requests, both from individuals and companies, than before.
Intentionally smiling using facial exercises could actually help you even if you smile often naturally. Smiling not only offers a mood boost but helps our bodies release cortisol and endorphins that provide numerous health benefits, including reduced blood pressure, increased endurance and reduced pain. These kinds of coaching sessions are also incredibly important for Japan at this time, as the country goes through another crisis, partly as a consequence of the lockdown. Earlier this year, nearly 1.5 million Japanese people were reported to be living as social recluses, as per a government survey. In early April, the phenomenon termed ‘Hikikomori’ or ‘Shut-ins’ was reported to be rapidly spreading in the country among the working age group.