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Japan toilet paper shortages are unconnected to coronavirus, but that's not encouraging

Piles of toilet paper are seen before being shipped out from Kamiyama Paper Co. in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, on March 4, 2020. (Mainichi/Yutaka Yamada)

TOKYO -- As the spread of the new coronavirus seizes the public imagination, shelves at drugstores, supermarkets and other shops are bare of not just masks, but tissue and toilet paper as well.

To prevent people from bulk-buying, many convenience and other stores have put one-per-customer limits or other restrictions on certain items. But consumers continue to pick shops clean of particular products, and there is as yet no sign this situation will end.

"Misinformation has spread via social media. We are appealing for consumers to act calmly." So said Hirofumi Hayashi, the head of the Japan Tissue Association (JTA), at an evening press conference held on Feb. 28 at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. He emphasized that supplies of tissue and toilet paper were not being affected by the spread of the new coronavirus.

That day, the association had already put a message on its homepage reading, "We have the ability to supply goods, and there are ample stocks."

A trolley normally stocked full of toilet paper is seen empty outside a shop in Ota Ward, Tokyo, on March 1, 2020. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

But even if all of that is the case, doesn't going as far as to call a press conference at night suggest that there is a sense of crisis over events taking place in society?

From around the end of February, false information started flying around on social media claiming that the raw materials for masks and toilet paper are the same, and that almost all of the toilet paper that is sold in Japan comes from China. The claims spread to many people, and reportedly led some to start buying up stocks of the products. Hayashi said that this reaction "is all a big mistake."

Masks are manufactured from non-woven fabrics, whereas toilet paper is made from a mix of around 40% pulp and 60% used paper. A large amount of pulp is imported in from North and South America, and obtaining it is reportedly in no way an issue.

The used paper all comes from domestic sources, and there is said to be no concern over supplies. Toilet paper made in China makes up just 1.3% of the rolls available in Japan, and imported toilet paper in general is just 2.3% of national stocks. Which is to say that some 97% of toilet paper in Japan is domestic product. Even if there is a fall in imports from China as a consequence of the coronavirus, the effect will be very small.

One major firm which makes toilet paper told the Mainichi Shimbun, "The factory is running on a 24-hour production system, and is proceeding just as it normally would."

Customers are seen carrying toilet paper and tissues to buy at a drugstore in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 28, 2020. (Mainichi/Kimitaka Takeichi)

On March 1, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter checked on the stocks of tissue and toilet paper at a neighborhood drugstore, and found the shelves empty. The store gets deliveries three times a week, but apparently the goods sell out shortly after they arrive. One store employee said, "Tomorrow is the day when we usually get toilet paper in, but it seems like the deliveries are in chaos. Maybe they won't be able to get stock to a small shop like ours."

Even with production working as normal, worried consumers' moves to buy up all available stock has made it impossible for deliveries to keep up with demand. And that has pitted retailers against one another for the goods that are available.

Mask imports from China have fallen, and with pollen season upon us the products are continually sold out. The situation has led to public-private initiatives to boost production, and YouTubers and others have started uploading videos showing how you can fashion masks from gauze and other materials yourself.

But the tissue and toilet paper shortage has no direct connection with the new coronavirus outbreak. Regardless of whether information doing the rounds on social media is pointed out to be wrong, if products are still disappearing from stores then people will panic. This is a sharp example of the terrors of the so-called "information society."

(Japanese original by Kei Tsuchiya, Business News Department)

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