(TOKYO) -- Long after other countries relaxed masking requirements due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan remained diligent and the country's residents continued to wear masks. The Japanese government downgraded the COVID threat earlier this year and finally told everyone it’s safe to unmask.
Suddenly with bare faces, some people are realizing that when it comes to smiling, they’re a little rusty.
Enter Tokyo smile coach Keiko Kawano, a former radio host who says she noticed that her own smile started to fade as her facial muscles weakened. A growing number of people in Japan are signing up for Kawano’s classes, they say, to get their grins back in a post-pandemic world.
Kawano believes that because of the prolonged mask wearing, opportunities to smile have declined. As a result, she says, some people have lost confidence in their smiles throughout the pandemic.
ABC News foreign correspondent Britt Clennett recently joined two others who are worried about their smiles – 56-year-old chorus singer Manyo Hasumi and 28-year-old nonprofit worker Shohei Hayashi – to get coached by Kawano in Toyko’s Ikebukuro district.
“I’ve been wearing a mask during the pandemic, and because of that I notice a great sense of muscle weakness around here,” Hasumi said, gesturing to the area around her smile.
Hayashi, too, says he wants to recover his smile muscles through Kawano’s course.
Students learn about the muscles involved in achieving that perfect grin before evaluating their own smiles and receiving pointers for how to exercise the muscles behind them.
Kawano says that facial muscles, like the rest of the body, need to be constantly exercised to stay in shape. Her facial workouts involve contorting the mouth and cheeks into different shapes. While they might look silly, Kawana says she does the exercises every day and swears by them.
Kawano normally offers a one-hour personal session for about $50.
But not everyone is sold on the benefits of achieving a million-dollar smile.
Keio University historian Tomohisa Sumida, who studies the history of masking in Japan, argues that this emphasis on improving your smile shows the influence of “Hollywood culture” from American entertainment, when Japan has a “long tradition not to smile,” he said.
Kawano says that more people in Japan are “catching on the importance of both facial expression as well as words in communication.”
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