TOKYO (Reuters) - 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.
It's not something most people would think to pay for but Kawano's services as a smile instructor are seeing a surge in demand in Japan, where mask-wearing was near universal during the pandemic.
Himawari Yoshida, 20, one of the students taking the class as part of her school's courses to prepare them for the job market, says she needed to work on her smile.
"I hadn't used my facial muscles much during COVID so it's good exercise," she said.
Kawano's company Egaoiku - literally "Smile Education" - has seen a more than four-fold jump in demand from last year, with customers ranging from companies seeking more approachable salespeople and local governments looking to improve their residents' well-being. An hour-long one-on-one lesson costs 7,700 yen ($55).
Even before the pandemic, donning a mask in Japan was normal for many during hay fever season and around exams due to concern about getting ill for a key life event.
But while the government may have lifted its recommendation to wear masks in March, many people have still not let them go on a daily basis. A poll by public broadcaster NHK in May showed 55% of Japanese saying they were wearing them just as often as two months earlier. Only 8% said they had stopped wearing masks altogether.
Tellingly, roughly a quarter of the art school students who took the class kept their masks on during the lesson. Young people have, perhaps, become used to life with masks, Kawano said, noting that women might find it easier to go out without makeup and men could hide that they hadn't shaved.
The former radio host who started giving lessons in 2017 has also trained 23 others as smiling coaches to spread the virtues and technique of crafting the perfect smile around Japan.
Her trademarked "Hollywood Style Smiling Technique" method comprises "crescent eyes", "round cheeks" and shaping the edges of the mouth to bare eight pearly whites in the upper row. Students can try out their technique on a tablet to get scored on their smile.
Kawano believes that culturally, Japanese people may be less inclined to smile than Westerners because of their sense of security as an island nation and as a unitary state. To hear her tell it, the threat of guns might, ironically, encourage more smiling.
"Culturally, a smile signifies that I'm not holding a gun and I'm not a threat to you," she said. With a surge in inbound tourists, Japanese people need to communicate with foreigners with more than just their eyes, she added.
"I think there's a growing need for people to smile."
($1 = 140 yen)
(Reporting by Anton Bridge and Tom Bateman; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Edwina Gibbs)