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100,000 boxes of unused cloth masks procured by Japan gov't unveiled to media in Tokyo

Countless boxes containing cloth masks procured by the Japanese government are seen in a warehouse in a Tokyo suburb on Dec. 1, 2021. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

TOKYO -- Amid reports that over 80 million cloth masks including those procured for the Japanese government's "Abenomask" program have gone unused, the health ministry has shown the Mainichi Shimbun a storage facility containing about 100,000 boxes of masks.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare rents half a floorspace -- or the equivalent of about 5,200 square meters in a warehouse -- in a Tokyo suburb, which the Mainichi Shimbun visited on Dec. 1. In it, cardboard boxes containing cloth masks are loaded onto pallets and stacked close together, on metal racks that stop them being crushed, in orderly rows up to about 5 meters tall. It reportedly took some two months to bring the boxes from the warehouse they were kept in until March.

    About 82.72 million masks were in storage as of the end of March. This included over 4.05 million cloth masks for nationwide distribution to all households under the Abenomask program, and more than 78.66 million masks for institutions including nursing and welfare facilities. Masks are still distributed to facilities asking for them, and their total was down to around 81.30 million by the end of October.

    The cloth masks were procured from 17 companies. Each storehouse pallet sports labels indicating mask numbers, manufacturers, and purposes such as "all households" and "nursing." The storage's temperature is kept at 20 degrees Celsius or lower, and the humidity at 60% or lower.

    A health ministry official who accompanied the Mainichi Shimbun on the storehouse tour said they "do get the impression there's a lot of stock," and that they "would like to think of ways to use them effectively by giving them to people who want them, without limiting distribution to facilities."

    A fiscal 2020 report released by the Board of Audit of Japan in November showed that stocks of at least 800 million household masks that existed at the end of 2019 fell drastically to 96 million in March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic began. Since that March, the health ministry has dedicated a total of 39.9 billion yen (about $354 million) to procure a total of 287.4 million cloth masks, and has distributed them to all Japan's households and care facilities. But mask circulation recovered, and remaining masks were set aside for storage in July.

    Some 600 hundred million yen (about $5.32 million) in total had been spent on mask storage by March 2021, and it continues to cost money to store the masks. A cloth mask's average unit cost is 139 yen, roughly one dollar. Simple calculations suggest the stored masks have a total value of about 11.3 billion yen, or roughly $100 million.

    Although the health ministry initially entrusted Japan Post Co. with distributing and storing the masks, the work was undertaken by logistics giant Sagawa Express Co. from autumn 2020 following a bidding process. Since then, the masks have been stored at one site. While 90 million yen (about $800,000) in monthly mask-storage expenses were originally required, costs for March this year were around 19 million yen (about $170,000). Government mask stocks' storage for fiscal 2021 was awarded to Nippon Express Co. after competitive bidding.

    Shunya Ikeda, a medical policy professor at the International University of Health and Welfare, said, "In the coronavirus pandemic's early stages, mask demand was difficult to predict, and the Japanese government's decision to secure cloth masks was appropriate in terms of crisis management. But it is already clear that nonwoven masks are more effective than cloth ones, and it's a waste to keep cloth masks as part of coronavirus countermeasures. The government should consider the matter, including the masks' disposal."

    Yasuhiro Yuki, social welfare professor at Shukutoku University, said, "I suppose the government could have reduced procured amounts by considering that nonwoven masks were gradually being supplied. It cannot throw away goods purchased with taxes. I want the government to consider disassembling them to use the gauze material and cloth for nursing and other settings."

    (Japanese original by Masakatsu Yamasaki, Tokyo City News Department)

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