Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Who is that masked man/woman?

May 22, 2009

FLU/JAPANAs the confirmed number of Japanese infected with the H1N1 flu virus rises, the growing question among many is: Where can we buy face masks?

Disposable masks have become an essential accessory in the worst-affected areas of western Japan, while a growing number of Tokyo commuters are wearing them. The government has recommended use by those who suspect infection, but some businesses are ordering employees to wear them, especially if they have face-to-face client interaction.

And Japan’s upper house of parliament is requesting that everyone, including lawmakers, wear a mask when entering the chamber.

Not surprisingly, some pharmacies and drug stores have run out of stock, while shares of medical mask makers Shikibo and Daiwabo have shot up since the first case was confirmed in Tokyo.

Osaka-based Shikibo says orders in April alone exceeded by 25 percent the volume of the previous business year, and TV footage shows lines outside stores.

My cousin in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, says more than half the people on the street are wearing masks now and the only reason she isn’t is because there are no masks to buy.

On a Yahoo! Japan auction site, one box of 100 surgical face masks was auctioned at around $280, compared with the original price of $20.  One listed on Friday was offered at $5,000 for a box of 50.

Masks are popular with Japanese who want to avoid passing on a cold or who have allergies, but flu-related demand now seems to be spreading to Tokyo, where “Sold Out” signs are becoming more common, along with a rising number of masked commuters.

Somewhat belatedly, perhaps, public broadcaster NHK stressed that wearing a mask does not provide full protection from catching flu, and once again reminded people to wash their hands.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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