Not a Joke: Why the Japanese are taking lessons on how to smile
People in Japan believe that wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic has made them forget how to smile. Now they are turning to experts who will train them to smile without appearing fake
FP Explainers Last Updated:May 16, 2023 18:18:14 IST
A group of Japanese practises how to smile in a class. Image courtesy: @MorningBrew/Twitter
Like the rest of the world, people in Japan spent the better part of the last few years covering their faces. The Japanese government finally lifted its mask-wearing mandate last week. But many are reluctant to step out without the face cover. Not because of the fear of the coronavirus. But they feel they have forgotten how to smile.
So what now? People across the country are fretting; they want to have the smiles back on their faces and hence are taking lessons for it. They are practising smiling and other facial expressions before they take off their masks in public.
“Smile practice” seminars have become a rage in Japan – people young and old, and a large number of women, are attending sessions on how to smile in a world where masks are no longer mandatory. (Japan was among the last countries in the world to go do away with masks.)
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Some in Japan worry that their smile might come across as fake; others are anxious to show the lower part of their face, which was hidden under the mask for almost three years, to strangers.
Hence nervous Japanese are turning to experts – professionals who can teach them how to wear the right expression and the perfect smile.
Inside Japan’s ‘smile training’ sessions
At a smile training session in Yokohama, a city south of Tokyo, participants first stretched to relieve tension. They then lifted hand-held mirrors and look at their reflections as an instructor asked them to flex their facial muscles, according to a report in Japan Times.
Keiko Kawano, a radio personality-turned-entrepreneur, who runs Egaoiku, which translates as “smile education” in English, emphasises the need for a smiling face. Learning how to smile impacts not only a person’s appearance but also their mindset, she says.
“A smile is only a smile if it’s conveyed,” Kawano is quoted by Japan Times, as telling her students. “Even if you’re thinking about smiling or that you’re happy, if you have no expression, it won’t reach the audience.”
A similar session was organised at a senior care centre in Tokyo earlier this month to help older Japanese learn how to smile again.
Seventy-nine-year-old Akiko Takizawa, who attended the seminar, told the Japanese daily Mainichi Shimbun that she didn’t show her smile to others during the pandemic as she didn’t have the opportunity to see people. “I am reminded how important smiles can be,” she added.
The smile business is booming in Japan. Egaoiku reportedly held such sessions even before the mask mandate was eased but since February the number of participants has increased “4.5 times” as compared to last year.
Kawano, who runs another company called Egao Trainer Association, has reportedly trained at least 4,000 people how to smile so far. She has further helped 700 people become certified “smile specialists”, according to reports in local media.
It was in 2017 that she began teaching people how to smile at a gym. She had no medical training but her one-hour sessions focussed on yoga and training the zygomatic muscles, which pull the corners of the mouth, reports The New York Times (NYT). She believes that the muscles just below the eyes are important.
The entrepreneur started giving training on smiling at nursing homes, corporate offices including IBM Japan, and individuals who thought a good smile would improve their job and marriage prospects. Then the pandemic hit and her business took a slump.
But even then she showed people how the smile with their eyes with the mask on – it needs one to lift the eye muscles. She told NYT that a TV presenter demonstrated her method on a broadcast and an online post about it helped her raise her profile.
Now, with more and more people in Japan ditching the mask, the demand for smile training sessions has increased.
Kawano is not alone. Miho Kitano is another “smile trainer”, who is seeing her business skyrocket as people want to rediscover how to be cheerful… and it all starts with smiling.
“We are extremely busy now because people want to be seen smiling again,” she told Telegraph. “Japanese people have been wearing masks for more than three years now and some say they have almost forgotten how to smile”.
Kitano’s company is called Smile Facial Muscle Association and the training comprises exercises which help them with their smiles. One of them includes biting on straws to elevate cheek muscles. She has around 3,000 customers in Tokyo and also holds one-on-one sessions that cost Y11,000 (Rs 6,657).
“I meet many people who say they aren’t good at smiling, but it’s all about the muscles, and we have to use and train them in order to get good at it,” she told Japan Times. “Just as you might exercise your arms, exercising your expressive muscles is so important.”
Fake or real?
But can you forget to smile? There have been no studies to indicate that wearing masks for a prolonged time affects facial muscles.
“Facial muscles can be trained like other muscles, although such training could be challenging, owing to large variability between individuals,” Professor Hanein, who runs a neuro-engineering lab at Tel Aviv University in Israel, told the NYT. “A possible problem with a practised or faked smile is that it may be identified as such by other people,” she added.
With inputs from agencies