Citizens of Japan are receiving professional help to learn how to smile again after wearing masks during the long and arduous COVID-19 pandemic response there.
Keiko Kawano’s company, “Smile Education,” has experienced more than a four-fold increase in demand for instruction in 2022. Customers range from sales professionals seeking to become more approachable to local governments.
In one of Keiko Kawano's recent classes, more than a dozen Tokyo art school students held mirrors to their faces, stretching the sides of their mouths upward with their fingers: they were practising how to smile https://t.co/rbPfSM7FlH 1/4 pic.twitter.com/pk4I2HrZgu
— Reuters (@Reuters) June 5, 2023
According to Kawano, the reason for such an increase in demand is the loss of facial muscle memory from COVID-19, when nearly all of Japan wore masks for several years.
After the Japanese government erased its recommendation to wear masks for COVID-19 prevention in March 2023, many residents realized they had forgotten how to smile.
“People have not been raising their cheeks under a mask or trying to smile much,” Kawano said. “Now, they’re at a loss.”
“I hadn’t used my facial muscles much during COVID so it’s good exercise,” 20-year-old student Himawari Yoshida told Reuters, adding that she’s taking Kawano’s course at the recommendation of her school to prepare for the job market.
Kawano, a former radio host, started offering smiling lessons in 2017. She has trained 23 other smile coaches on using her “Hollywood Style Smiling Technique,” and she scores students based on their performance.
According to Reuters, the lessons cost 7,700 yen, or approximately $55 per hour for one-on-one instruction.
One of Kawano’s exercises instructs students to hold up mirrors to their faces and stretch the sides of their mouths with their fingers to get used to the feeling.
“Culturally, a smile signifies that I’m not holding a gun and I’m not a threat to you,” Kawano explained to Reuters, adding that an increase in international tourists could mean learning how to communicate again using facial expressions.
Wearing masks is not new in Japan. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Japanese citizens would wear masks in public spaces to combat hay fever and the spread of illnesses like influenza. COVID-19 only increased the prominence of the practice.
In 2023, many Japanese people are still masking. A poll by broadcaster NHK in May 2023 found that over half of Japanese people were still wearing masks. Not surprisingly, about 25% of students in an art class that took Kawano’s smiling course wore masks while they did so.