Debate is emerging in Japan over how much longer people should wear masks to combat the coronavirus.
With the sixth domestic wave of infections on the wane, many are expressing signs of impatience as countries abroad abandon face-coverings in certain situations in line with expert advice.
Some Japanese experts are also advising an easing of restrictions, such as removing them when people are outdoors and practicing social-distancing. Deliberations on the issue appear to be gathering steam at the government's expert panel on COVID-19.
On April 20, Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, spoke up for the current policy at a press conference, saying, "I don't expect the day will come in Japan when people will remove their masks 'in a life with COVID-19'."
But frustration is brewing on the internet as the country enters its third year of life with mask use urged in public spaces. People on social media complain of "infections spreading even though nearly everyone has been wearing masks" and "feelings of desperation."
At a press conference on April 27, Nakagawa repeated his view that people should continue to wear masks as long as the fear of infection from COVID-19 remains. Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Shigeyuki Goto added that "wearing masks is extremely important."
However, Daishiro Yamagiwa, the minister for economic and fiscal policy, said during a television program on April 24, "I think masks are no longer necessary outdoors," adding that relaxing mask use in stages is a realistic prospect.
On the same program, Tottori Gov. Shinji Hirai called for reviewing measures taken so far to prevent COVID-19, revealing that he has been publicly stressing that masks are unnecessary as long as enough distance is maintained between people.
Members of the government's expert panel mentioned the need for taking a clear stance on the question of when to lift the mask recommendation during its meeting on April 27.
"I have been saying that the time of either-or has gone," Shigeru Omi, head of the panel, told reporters following the meeting.
Saying the situation has moved on from a period of growing infections when people were uniformly advised to wear masks, Omi said the panel would discuss the question based on "rational standards."
Mask requirements are easing overseas. The United States has lifted a federal mask mandate, while the use of masks has become unnecessary in countries such as Britain and France.
In Japan, the number of daily new infections stood at 40,443 on April 26, and 51.8 percent of its population had been vaccinated for the third time by then, according to government data.
"Even under the current state of infections, there is no problem to remove masks outdoors, if enough distance is maintained between people in activities such as those in the park or out for walks," said Atsuo Hamada, specially appointed professor of infectious diseases at Tokyo Medical University.
As the risk of heatstroke increases with hotter weather, the question is not whether people should uniformly wear masks or remove them but "how to respond (to infections) depending on the situation," Hamada said.
As for the removal of masks in crowded indoor spaces, Hamada reckoned it is essential that more than 60 percent of people in Japan be vaccinated for the third time as in Europe.
"The government should show a roadmap toward easing the mask restriction gradually in four to five stages," he added.