The government said Friday that only households in Tokyo have so far received cloth face masks under its distribution plan but delivery to other parts of Japan will be completed by the end of May, when the extended state of emergency declared over the novel coronavirus ends.
Around 5.6 million of the masks, dubbed "Abenomasks" on social media, a pun on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "Abenomics" economic policy mix, had been distributed in Tokyo as of Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.
But the postal delivery of two cloth masks per household will start next week in prefectures with relatively large numbers of coronavirus cases such as Osaka, he said.
"We will secure quality face masks that people feel are safe to use and deliver them," Suga said at a press conference.
The distribution of cloth masks is aimed at curbing demand for disposable ones that are still in short supply, as Abe struggles to hit the right note over the government's coronavirus response.
After reports of defects in cloth masks first delivered to pregnant women that led to a recall, the government had to bolster quality checks.
Critics have questioned the effectiveness of the 46.6 billion yen ($440 million) scheme in containing the spread of the coronavirus, while some have complained that the face masks are small and two masks is not enough for families.
Suga said about 800 million disposable face masks are expected to be supplied in May, up from about 700 million in April, making it easier for consumers to buy them.
Abe extended the state of emergency until May 31, covering all 47 prefectures. Of them, 13 prefectures including the Tokyo metropolitan area, Kyoto, Aichi, Hokkaido and Fukuoka have been designated as areas needing "special caution." Tokyo has by far the largest number of coronavirus cases.
Abe is asking people to adopt "new lifestyles" as the country gradually shifts toward normalcy and a government panel of medical experts recommends wearing face masks when talking and going out.
After the Golden Week holidays through Wednesday, Suga started wearing a cloth mask with a stitched design unique to the Ainu ethnic minority in Hokkaido. The design is meant to fend off illness and the mask was a gift, he said.
Some members of the Abe Cabinet are also wearing face masks of their own choice.