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Japan schools, workplaces criticized for 'white masks only' rules despite shortage

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, front right, is seen wearing a white face mask at a meeting of the government's novel coronavirus prevention headquarters, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on April 1, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)
Masks handmade by a group in the town of Fujikawaguchiko, Yamanashi Prefecture, are seen in a variety of colors and designs, on April 4, 2020. (Mainichi/Satoru Yamamoto)

OSAKA -- Employees and parents are voicing anger and frustration over white-mask-only rules at some Japanese workplaces and schools, implemented despite waning supplies amid the novel coronavirus' spread.

Gathering white cloth, thread, elastic string and other materials for a homemade white mask is a lot of work, and it's hard to obtain these materials from stores due to shortages and many businesses being temporarily closed.

Ryo Uchida is an associate professor in educational sociology at Nagoya University's Graduate School of Education and Human Development in central Japan who is familiar with the white mask mandates at schools. He questions "the sense of safety" of those in managerial positions at schools and workplaces who impose mask color rules even as the new virus continue to spread in Japan.

When asked about their recent sales, a sales representative at sewing materials firm Fujix Ltd., based in Kyoto's Shimogyo Ward, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "White thread is selling particularly well." They reported that sales volumes of all their sewing machine threads are up by around four to five times their usual level due to the coronavirus outbreak, but that even so the rise in white thread sales outpaces the rest.

The representative said they had heard of some elementary schools and others allowing only white masks, and added that, "White cloth and gauze is particularly hard to get hold of, and there are some parents worrying about having no thread, too."

According to Fujix, thread products for household use are almost entirely manufactured in Japan, and that plentiful supplies of raw materials remain, so there aren't concerns about shortages like those of disposable masks. But they said that temporary shortfalls are making white sewing thread more difficult to obtain.

Social media users have been posting comments including, "I ran out of sewing thread, so I went to the crafts store and only the white ones were sold out." Another said, "My eldest son was told by his teacher at school that black masks are no good. I can't believe they're making rules on color designs in this emergency." Another from a worker read, "The boss at the company I've been dispatched to has sent us an email saying we have to wear masks. And that they must be white. What do you want me to do at a time like this?"

One person working at a supermarket in southwestern Japan's Saga Prefecture took to Twitter to lament, "My employer has specified that we use plain white (masks), so I have to make them that way." Their store reportedly recommended the color saying, "We directly respond to customers, so white masks are preferable from standpoints including the impression they leave and their sense of cleanliness."

Although the use of white is not mandatory, the advisory makes it emotionally difficult for employees to use other mask types. Supplies of disposable masks at the supermarket have also been insufficient, and employees who have tried to buy them with their own money have found the shelves empty by the time they can go shopping after their shifts.

Tsubasa Akao, 33, the head of a company which operates kids clothing firm Otona De Kodomo, wrote on Twitter, "Oh wake up already! What's important right now?"

With the spread of the coronavirus, his company has started taking orders for masks. They don't deal in white masks, but among the hundreds of enquiries they receive a day, between 30 and 40% are questions relating to color and whether they sell white masks. A livestreamed video on their Instagram introducing various products also saw viewers writing in about white masks, and many left comments including that schools are allowing white only. Akao said, "It's bizarre given the circumstances."

According to Nagoya University's Uchida, specifications on what mask colors people can wear have been in place at schools across the country for some years. He says that in response to students wearing masks in blue and other patterns during flu season, schools have implemented blanket rules for white masks only.

He added that from the schools' perspective, the line of thinking behind implementing white-mask only rules is that if other designs or colors are allowed even once, then it could gradually lead to students wearing flashier masks, and cause disruption at school.

Uchida continued, "It's only some schools, but at this time, it gives me a sense of how blinkered their sense of safety is that they're prioritizing these rules over preventing infectious diseases."

A white mask made by the author is seen in Osaka on April 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Reiko Noguchi)

All of Japan is now under a state of emergency. Top local government figures including Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki have worn patterned masks while delivering public remarks. It appears we are now reaching a stage where workplaces and schools will have to come to terms with the fact that this is not the moment for obtuse insistence on narrow-minded rules.

(Japanese original by Reiko Noguchi, Osaka Regional News Department)

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