Now and then you see something like this when looking at pictures from Japan:

Japanese people with surgical face masks

There are supposedly many reasons for this, but one is, quoting a summary from Wikipedia:

Surgical masks are popularly worn by the general public in East Asian countries to reduce the chance of spreading airborne diseases; in Japan, it is common to wear a face mask whilst ill to avoid infecting others in public settings. In Japan and Taiwan, it is common to see these masks worn while ill, as a show of consideration for others and social responsibility.

(emphasis mine)

My question is: Does it help? That is, are people in Japan less sick from airborne diseases compared to cultures where it is not common to wear a mask? Are there any data to back it up, or to disprove it? I'm specifically thinking of the common cold, but other diseases would be interesting.

I appreciate the difficulty in answering such a question - it seems as if you would have to find a near-identical country to compare with, but then again, there are probably a lot of organizations tracking just this sort of thing.

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