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News Navigator: Are Japan's electronics giants now making masks?

Masks produced by Sharp Corp. are seen in this photo provided by the company.

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about Japanese electronics firms entering the mask market to ease a national shortage amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Question: I've heard that many firms have begun producing face masks. Can you name one of them?

Answer: Electronics giant Sharp Corp. started producing masks at its factory in the Mie Prefecture town of Taki, western Japan, in March. The company is making 150,000 non-woven fabric masks per day, and plans to increase daily production to 500,000.

Q: How come Sharp was able to begin making masks so quickly?

A: In a bid to ease the mask shortage, the Japanese government is subsidizing the installation of machines and other equipment to make them. Sharp received these subsidies as it could tap technological support from its parent company Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. of Taiwan, also known as Foxconn Technology Group, which has been making masks in China since February.

Furthermore, the factory in Mie makes liquid crystal displays and has a cleanroom, a space designed to keep dust and other foreign substances to an absolute minimum and which is essential for making masks.

Q: What about other companies?

A: At the end of May, Panasonic Corp. will also start making tens of thousands of masks per day at its factory in the western Japan prefecture of Okayama, where it usually produces audiovisual equipment for business use and that also has a cleanroom. Toy maker Bandai Co. has started producing medical face shields at its toy factory in the eastern Japan prefecture of Tochigi, using its plastic processing technology.

Electronics manufacturers Ricoh Co. and Hitachi Ltd. have also started making protective masks using their molding and 3D printing technology.

Q: Will these movements solve the mask shortage in Japan?

A: Sadly no. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Japan has secured the production of 600 million disposable non-woven masks per month, but this amount is not enough to supply the more than 100 million people in the country. For example, some 4.7 million entries were received for Sharp's mask purchase lottery -- about 120 times the number of masks available at the time.

The central government is also recommending people use washable cloth masks. The public may need to think about how to use masks less often, such as teleworking and refraining from going outdoors.

(Japanese original by Yuhi Sugiyama, Osaka Business News Department)

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