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Criticism of reselling apps heats up in Japan as virus fears cause mask shortages

The empty racks where masks would typically be stocked is seen at Shimokawa pharmacy in Kumamoto, southwestern Japan, on Feb. 4, 2020. The sign reads, "Due to the coronavirus, stocks of masks are low. We appreciate your understanding, and advise that we currently have no confirmed restocking date." (Mainichi/Kohei Shimizu)
A sign at the Shimokawa pharmacy in Kumamoto, southwestern Japan, is seen on Feb. 4, 2020, informing customers of limits on the number of masks they can buy. It reads, "We apologize for the inconvenience, but each individual customer may buy up to three packs of masks." (Mainichi/Kohei Shimizu)

Consternation is rising in Japan as people looking to buy masks amid the growing coronavirus outbreak are finding store shelves denuded of the face coverings, even as packs of them appear on internet resale sites at many times their usual prices.

On the marketplace app Mercari, some 13,000 mask listings had been posted by Feb. 5. A pack of 30 non-woven masks from 100-yen shop Daiso retails for 100 yen plus tax; on the app they were seen being sold in quantities of 10 boxes for around 10,000 yen -- some 10 times the ordinary price. One listing for what appeared to be a bought-up lot of 100 boxes was seen sold for over 80,000 yen (about $728).

There were also people with large numbers of high-function masks who were reselling some 10,000 of them for 1 million-plus yen. The Mainichi Shimbun enquired with one such seller how they had obtained such a huge stock of the masks.

"The masks were bought as part of emergency supplies for my company about a year ago, but due to various circumstances they're no longer required," the seller responded.

Conversely, in shopping street pharmacies and drugstores, stocks of masks have hit rock-bottom, and there's no indication as to when new shipments will arrive. Shimokawa pharmacy, located close to popular inbound tourist destination Kumamoto Castle in the southwestern city of Kumamoto, said its inventory ran out on Feb. 3, and customers had since been asking repeatedly when more would arrive.

"Even if we do get a shipment, they're all sold out by the time we've unpacked them," said the shop's manager, Itaru Matsumoto, 47. The current season typically sees high demand for masks anyway, with students taking entrance exams and people worried about influenza. One 78-year-old woman who came to the shop and left empty-handed told the Mainichi, "I only have two masks left at home. If I run out I'll be too scared to go out."

Masks for industries including medical care, nursing care and food production are also becoming increasingly scarce. On Jan. 28, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry asked mask-makers in Japan to increase production to provide a stable supply.

With increasing criticism for mask resales at inflated prices, Mercari's operator called on users to "buy and sell items within socially acceptable parameters" regarding mask transactions. It added, "Depending on the sale, we may reserve the right to confirm how the items were obtained."

At a regular press conference on Feb. 5, Consumer Affairs Agency Commissioner Akiko Ito spoke about the increasing scarcity of masks in Japan as fears over the coronavirus' spread increase, and moves to resell the masks. She said, "The problem is that people who really need these items may not be able to get them," indicating that the agency will request trading site operators and others to warn their users.

(Japanese original by Kohei Shimizu, Kumamoto Bureau, and Reiko Oka, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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