The Japanese government plans to dispose of unused cloth masks that it has been keeping in storage since an unpopular free distribution program at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday, as keeping them is proving costly.

The washable cloth masks won the name of "Abenomasks" in some quarters in Japan after then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who decided to distribute them last year to cope with tight supplies of disposable ones.

The government procured about 287 million masks to distribute to nursing care facilities and all households across the nation. It had over 81 million undistributed masks as of October and spent about 600 million yen ($5.3 million) to keep unused ones in storage between August last year and March this year.

File photo taken in Tokyo on Aug. 8, 2020, shows then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wearing one of the cloth masks procured by Japan during the coronavirus pandemic, dubbed "Abenomasks" by the public. (Kyodo)

"I have instructed (officials) to dispose of the government's stock of cloth masks by the end of the current fiscal year (through March) after distributing them to those in need," Kishida told a press conference.

"Worries about mask shortages have been completely eliminated due to a recovery in manufacturing and supply, and the intended purpose (of the cloth masks) has been achieved," the premier said.

Japan has seen the number of newly confirmed coronavirus cases on a downward trend, though uncertainty over the new Omicron variant remains.

The Abe government's well-intended cloth mask distribution apparently backfired due to delivery delays and the discovery of defective ones.

The health ministry has found about 11 million cloth masks, or about 15 percent of those checked, defective, costing around 2.1 billion yen just for the inspections.

During the just-ended extraordinary session through Tuesday, Kishida said the government will consider how to utilize the remaining face masks better.