Cloth masks started arriving at post offices in Tokyo on Thursday under a controversial Japanese government program for their universal distribution to help contain the novel coronavirus outbreak.

With the number of people infected with the pneumonia-causing virus drastically increasing in Tokyo and other big cities in recent weeks, the government will begin delivering two washable masks to each household by mail on Friday in hard-hit areas. It aims to complete delivery nationwide by the end of May.

(A Japan Post Co. employee checks a cloth mask at a post office in Tokyo on April 16, 2020, after boxes of masks arrived there under the Japanese government's program to distribute two masks to each household amid the spread of the new coronavirus.) 

The 46.6 billion yen ($431 million) program to distribute a total of 100 million masks, however, has been ridiculed by critics who call it a waste of taxpayer money and doubt the effectiveness of cloth masks compared with surgical ones that have become scarce.

They mock the initiative as "Abenomask," a pun on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "Abenomics," his signature economic policy.

"We want to get ready quickly and make sure people receive them," said a person in charge of delivery at Setagaya Post Office in Tokyo as boxes of masks were brought in by truck in the morning.

Cloth masks have wider gaps between fibers than surgical ones, but the government defends the program as "reasonable," saying distributing the masks will help reduce demand for disposable ones and ease public anxiety over the huge shortage of face masks.

Some people have openly said they do not need cloth masks, but flea market app operator Mercari Inc. and Yahoo Japan Corp., which runs an online auction service, have said they will not allow the items to be sold on their platforms.