In February last year as toilet paper was flying off supermarket shelves as a result of panic and misleading information, the announcement of free reusable masks to all residents was a welcomed ambition. 120 million cloth masks, sarcastically dubbed “Abenomasks,” were delivered to every household between April to June, the theory being that the Abenomask was proposed by bureaucrats in then prime minister Abe Shinzo’s administration as a way to quickly tackle growing public anxiety. The masks were hand made in Vietnam and boasted excellent antibacterial properties, four layers, and a lifespan of more than 150 washes. However, the initiative was subject to intense political criticism and was ridiculed on social media for being too small, uncomfortable, and a waste of taxpayer money. One year later and the ghost of Abenomask continues to haunt and has been subjected to growing pressure and lawsuits to disclose government negotiations with contractors in charge of distribution.
A limit of two cloth masks per household and a succession of problems over mold stains, insects, and defects discovered in cloth masks packed for pregnant women helped spark the initial surge of bad publicity. Subsequently, the questionable quality and design aesthetics led many to abandon the Abenomask unopened at home, preferring more functional and fashionable alternatives. Abe himself was the only member of the cabinet who wore the mask until even he was seen in August sporting a disposal mask (he explained it was now possible since stores had restocked “a variety” of masks). The latest research also suggests non-woven masks such as disposable masks are more effective against Covid-19 compared to reusable fabric masks and this could give more reasons to believe that the policy was a major miscalculation.
Although masks are worn by practically everyone in Japan, there is rarely a sighting of an Abenomask on the street. Behind the scenes, piles of unopened Abenomasks are accumulating as donations at municipal collection centers, in disaster preparedness kits, and in homeless shelters as well as lingering questions around the cost effectiveness of the 50 billion yen ($460 million) price tag. By mid-June last year 96 percent of households received their cloth masks; however by mid-July a local survey found that only 3.5 percent of respondents were actually using them. A group of medical and nursing home operators in Nagoya reported that after starting a collection drive for protective gear to donate to the elderly, 90 percent of donations have been unopened and unused “Abenomasks.” In late-July last year the government pushed ahead with an order for 80 million additional cloth masks to distribute to nurseries, nursing homes and other care facilities. People eligible for the second batch of cloth masks called the initiative an “unwelcome favor” especially since stocks of commercial masks had been replenished by that time. In response to quality control issues, the government designated an extra 800 million yen ($7.3 million) for inspections before delivery.
The ghost of Abenomask continues to haunt – and scrutiny continues to grow
With the masks collecting dust in people’s drawers or otherwise out of mind, scrutiny continues to grow over the program. In February a university professor filed a lawsuit against the government after the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education declined his request between April and June 2020 to reveal the unit price of the government issued cloth masks and the number of masks ordered from manufacturers.
The latest lawsuit is demanding the paperwork on contract negotiations as well as 600,000 yen ($6000) in compensation on the basis that non-disclosure is illegal and should be verified to ensure the validity of the policy. It follows a separate lawsuit filed by the same plaintiff in September 2020 seeking the disclosure of the unit price and the number of masks ordered by the manufacturer which were conveniently blacked out on official documents. Confusingly, the unit price of the sheet fabric of 143 yen was retained which is thought to be an oversight.
The Ministry of Education explained that disclosing the unit price might interfere with future price negotiations but also added that records of the communication between contractors do not exist. However, this goes against The Public Records and Archives Management Act which requires all documents relating to public decision making such as communication and interactions between contractors be recorded as a way to verify public spending. Both ministries stated that they could not comment on the court case which is fuelling suspicions of dodgy interactions with contractors.
With the Covid-19 mask shortage resolved for the time being, disgruntled comments over Abenomasks have largely settled, but the initiative has become symbolic of the government’s out of touch response to the Covid-19 crisis. Though the masks have become largely extinct in the outside world, the latest lawsuit means that the Abenomask saga is not over yet.
Thisanka Siripala is a Sri Lankan-Australian translator and broadcast journalist based in Tokyo. She specializes in Japan focused business, tech and social issues and is passionate about documenting Japan in depth for English speaking audiences.