Prime Minister Shinzo Abe defended Tuesday his government's plan to dispense cloth masks to all households as "reasonable" to fight the spread of the new coronavirus in Japan as disposable ones are still in short supply.
The government will submit a supplementary budget for fiscal 2020 from April to the Diet next week to finance an emergency package worth 108 trillion yen ($1 trillion), part of which will fund the mask distribution.
"It's very helpful in coping with surging demand for face masks. It's a reasonable step," Abe told parliament.
Critics say the distribution of what some ridicule as "Abenomask" -- meaning "Abe's mask" -- will not be sufficient to curb a sharp increase in coronavirus infections in Tokyo, Osaka and other parts of the country.
However, the government argues the distribution of cloth face masks is intended to ease public anxiety over empty shelves for disposable face masks at drugstores. After imports from China slumped, the government asked domestic manufacturers to ramp up production to keep up with demand.
As cloth masks can be washed and used over and over again, the government now hopes distributing them will help reduce demand for disposable ones.
Under the program, each household will receive two cloth masks by mail. In all, the purchase and delivery of over 100 million face masks will cost about 46.6 billion yen, half of which will be covered in the supplementary budget.
Abe has been criticized for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Most recently, the posting of a video clip showing a relaxed Abe on a sofa caused a stir, sparking accusations that he is out of touch with the public.
In Tuesday's Diet session, Abe said the economic package, equivalent to about 20 percent of Japan's gross domestic product, is "one of the world's biggest" and defended the country's response to the epidemic as not lagging behind other countries.
The compilation of an extra budget at the very beginning of a fiscal year in April is quite rare in Japan. The government and ruling coalition want the Diet to approve the budget featuring a cash handout program for struggling households on April 22.
A week after a state of emergency was declared for Tokyo and six other prefectures, lawmakers took a new step to reduce transmission risks in parliament.
During Tuesday's plenary session, about half of the 465-seat House of Representatives was empty after some lawmakers left the chamber and watched deliberations remotely after approving government personnel changes that required their attendance.
It is the first time under the current Constitution that the ruling and opposition parties have jointly reduced the number of Diet members in attendance, according to the secretariat of the lower house.
Under the monthlong state of emergency through May 6, the government and local authorities have asked the public to refrain from unnecessary outings.
Abe is calling for an up to 80 percent cut in person-to-person interactions and a 70 percent reduction in commuters so the recent uptrend in coronavirus infections will reach its peak in two weeks.