The Kurtz Syndrome is a condition which affects many long-term residents, causing them to go native like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now/The Heart of Darkness. Symptoms in Japan include excessive bowing, sushi addiction, and salariman-like tooth-sucking.
This week I had an experience that made me realize how much I’ve been affected by living here. I wore a cold mask for the first time in my life, so I guess there’s no denying I’ve become a Kurtz.
It started last year when I got sick with a cold and a  couple of Japanese coworkers started hinting that I should wear a mask at work. I always thought masks were rather ridiculous, mostly just a play for sympathy or a neurotic form of over-kind worry about others. When the WHO recommended that ordinary people not wear masks during the swine flu epidemic, I became even more-firmly convinced that masks were not necessary. Still, a big part of me felt really bad about doing something that was antagonizing my coworkers, who I really like.
Then this week, I caught another bug that was going around at work. It was a really nasty one, and a couple of my coworkers had really upset stomachs. I started thinking about my seven-month old son, and how awful it would be if he got really sick, so I decided it was time to put on a mask whenever I was around him.
The worst part was on Wednesday morning when I went out in public wearing the mask because I had to take my son to pre-school. I felt like a complete idiot, but thinking about how colds spread around at his pre-school, I decided that I really should wear the mask.
The thing that really worries me is that masks may be a very slippery slope. I imagine in a couple of years I’ll be wearing one of those N95 masks every time I get a sniffle. When I first came to Japan, I thought people who mixed in a lot of Japanese words when they were speaking English or were always bowing and bobbing their heads were being pretentious or were weak people who were too easily influenced by their surroundings. Now I know it can happen to anyone.