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100,000 unwanted 'Abenomasks' returned or donated to Japan gov't and local bodies

This May 26, 2020 file photo taken in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward shows two cloth masks that were distributed as part of the national government's initiative to deliver masks to households across Japan. (Mainichi/Kimitaka Takeichi)
This file photo shows a pair of cloth masks that were distributed to households across Japan by the national government. (Mainichi/Noriaki Kinoshita)

TOKYO -- Following the Japanese government's deliveries of cloth masks to all households across Japan, nearly 100,000 masks have been returned to national and local authorities, or donated to private organizations, it was revealed in Mainichi Shimbun interviews.

Although there are cases where such masks that were initially deemed unnecessary are reused at other facilities, there have also been troubled local governments that have no use for the returned masks.

The national government's initiative to distribute two cloth masks to each household in Japan to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus has been promoted by the Abe administration. The masks have been sarcastically dubbed "Abenomask" (Abe's masks), a play on the Abe administration's "Abenomics" economic policy mix. A government official close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advised him that "if cloth masks, which can be repeatedly used, are distributed, the public's concerns about a shortage of masks will disappear." The national government has explained that the mask deliveries to households began on April 17 and were completed in mid-June.

However, there have been numerous cases where masks deemed as unnecessary were sent back to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, having reached 711 cases as of July 6. While a ministry representative showed relief that "the number of returned masks was lower than expected," the representative also added, "We do not know the exact number of these masks, as we have not opened the contents and do not know whether they hold one or two masks. Although we are storing the masks at the ministry, it is difficult to reuse them and there is a possibility that we will dispose them."

There have also been cases of cloth masks being returned or donated to local governments. A total of 140 masks sent back in 70 cases have reached the municipal government of Tokyo's Minato Ward, while 40 to 60 masks sent back in 20 to 30 cases have reached the capital's Shinagawa Ward.

Similar cases have occurred at local governments across Japan, but many of them have not tallied up specific figures. A representative of a ward office's information desk commented, "There are people who leave Abenomasks without saying anything even though we are not accepting donations. We are in the midst of searching for facilities to which we can donate them."

Many cloth masks have been delivered to Rengo Hokkaido, a trade union confederation in Japan's northernmost prefecture. The number of donations reached around 93,000 as of July 15, and the confederations says that masks have also been gathered from nationwide areas besides Hokkaido. A representative commented, "We did not think we would be able to gather so many masks," and spoke of putting them to use by donating them to child care facilities and homes for the elderly.

Although masks were in short supply around April 1 when the prime minister announced the cloth mask delivery initiative, there are currently many households that don't need Abenomasks as the problem has been solved over time. There has also been the issue of defects being found in the items, such as yellow stains and mold. Up to 7,917 inquiries have been made to the health ministry requesting for such masks to be exchanged, which had apparently been covered for with spare supplies.

While the ministry has said to be receiving voices of encouragement regarding the mask distribution from the Japanese public, such as, "I want to use them with care," there have also been many critical opinions like, "The project is pointless."

(Japanese original by Ryosuke Abe, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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