Japanese Health Ministry Overwhelmed With Requests For Remaining ‘Abenomasks’, Extends Deadline

Boxes containing cloth masks purchased by the Japanese government are seen in a warehouse near Tokyo on December 1, 2021. (Mainichi / Takehiko Onishi)

TOKYO – Requests for some of the tens of millions of sheet masks left behind by a Japanese government mask distribution program at the start of the coronavirus pandemic will be extended by two weeks, after a flood of requests from individuals and organizations, the Department of Health said on Jan. 11.

The masks, commonly referred to as “Abenomasks”, were purchased in 2020 by the administration of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But at the end of 2021, some 80 million of them, worth about 11.5 billion yen (about $ 99.8 million), were still in storage.

The Department of Health, Labor and Welfare opened requests to the public for some of the remaining masks on December 24, 2021 and was expected to accept requests until January 14 of this year. However, the ministry extended the deadline to January 28 after receiving around 85,000 applications as of January 6. These requests represent at least 8.5 million masks, as orders are accepted in units of 100, although the figure is still far from 80 million. Most of the requests apparently came from individuals.

“Without ending the program, we would like to distribute them to as many people as possible who want them,” said a ministry official.

The Abe administration aimed to distribute two sheet masks to every household in Japan, but the program was hampered by product issues including stains, mold and insect infestations. Some people returned unused masks because they were not “wanted”.

It cost the Japanese government some 600 million yen (about $ 5.2 million) just to store the remaining masks between August 2020 and March 2021. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida decided in December 2021 to give them to all who wanted them, and called on his government to dispose of the masks by the end of March this year.

Instructions for obtaining the masks are available on the Department of Health website at: https://www.mhlw.go.jp/stf/seisakunitsuite/bunya/mask_haifu_kibou.html (in Japanese).

(Japanese original by Shunsuke Kamiashi, Department of Medical and Lifestyle News)

Maria J. Book