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Ministry refuses to name 4th supplier in troubled Japan mask handout scheme

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a House of Councillors Committee on Audit session while wearing a face mask, on April 1, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has refused to disclose the name of one of the four companies that accepted government orders to supply cloth masks for distribution to pregnant women in Japan amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, raising suspicion over what lies behind the nondisclosure.

While the ministry has identified three of the contract companies as Kowa Co., Itochu Corp. and Matsuoka Corp., it only referred to the fourth company as "plus one." As the government is obliged to announce all contractors under public procurement rules, opposition parties are demanding that the ministry reveal the fourth firm.

On April 21, the health ministry disclosed that the contract amounts for the masks to be distributed in pairs to all households was roughly 5.48 billion yen for Kowa Co., some 2.85 billion yen for Itochu Corp., and approximately 760 million yen for Matsuoka Corp.

With regard to cloth masks for pregnant women, the ministry's mask team replied in writing that "the aforementioned three companies plus one, totaling four firms" were awarded the contracts. The statement came in response to a question by Akira Koike, head of the Japanese Communist Party's secretariat. An array of problems with the masks, including stains and the discovery of bugs and hair, were reported by local governments, and the central government has suspended their distribution.

At a meeting held in the Diet by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties on April 23, participating legislators and others demanded that the health ministry identify the fourth firm that received orders for the masks for expecting mothers. But a ministry official declined to respond, saying, "We cannot announce the name at the moment."

According to a public procurement rule that the Ministry of Finance has notified of ministries and agencies about, government bodies must disclose the names of contractors and the contract sums within 72 days of the day of a contract requiring public spending. If the contract was concluded between April 1 and 30 of single fiscal year, the disclosure must be made within 93 days.

An opposition lawmaker questioned a ministry official in charge of the mask handouts, saying, "Under the public purchase rule, you must disclose the firm that was awarded the contract. Which company is the fourth one?" In response, the ministry official said, "We are aware of the public purchase rules, and we are supposed to disclose the name within a certain time frame after the contracts. However, we will refrain from announcing it based on our own protocols."

When an opposition legislator asked, "Why can you reveal the names of three of the four companies and not the remaining one? It makes us rather suspicious," the ministry employee replied, "The majority of the masks were supplied by the three companies. The masks provided by the fourth firm are different in shape from those of the three other companies, and were not among the ones reported to have problems."

Unconvinced, opposition lawmakers criticized the ministry, with one saying, "I see no reason why they are withholding that single company, when they will have to reveal it sooner or later," and another stating, "It is unclear why they chose those four companies in the first place."

Under the mask handout plan, the government is to distribute the cloth masks it purchased from the four companies in pairs to some 50 million households across the country. In late March, priority delivery of 500,000 masks for pregnant women kicked off, along with 19.3 million masks for nursing care and welfare facilities for the elderly, and 8 million masks for elementary, junior high and high schools. In areas including Tokyo, which has the largest number of coronavirus cases in Japan, distribution to regular households had already started, but on April 23 Kowa and Itochu announced that they would recall all undelivered masks.

(Japanese original by Yusuke Mizuwaki, Political News Department)

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