The Japanese government decided Friday to drastically ease COVID-19 guidelines on mask-wearing on March 13, including those for public transportation and schools, as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida seeks to relax health restrictions for economic and social activities.

Under the new guidelines, passengers will only be recommended to wear face masks on trains and buses during rush hour or other occasions when public transport is especially congested, while students will not be requested to use them during school activities.

The decision comes amid the government's downgrading of the legal status of COVID-19 to the same category as common infectious diseases like seasonal flu on May 8, in a major policy shift in its response to the outbreak that began in early 2020.

There has never been a mask mandate in Japan, but mask-wearing has become a daily custom among citizens for around three years. Kishida, who took office in October 2021, has said the decision to put on a mask, indoors or outdoors, will be left to individuals.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida removes his mask before speaking to reporters on Feb. 10, 2023, in Toda, Saitama Prefecture. (Kyodo)

Although the new guidelines are designed to allow individuals to judge for themselves when to wear a mask in their daily lives, people will be recommended to wear them in certain situations, such as if they are displaying symptoms of the disease or whenever they visit a medical institution.

Wearing face masks will also be framed as an effective measure for protecting oneself and others, particularly when elderly people or other individuals at risk of developing severe infection symptoms are present in crowded spaces, government officials said.

When using public transportation, passengers will not be asked to wear a face mask, including on shinkansen bullet trains and long-distance buses where seats are usually allocated for individual customers.

Skepticism, however, is growing that the latest decision by the Kishida administration will prompt Japanese citizens to stop wearing face masks outside amid lingering fears about infections with the novel coronavirus.

A worker for a Japanese manufacturer told Kyodo News, "When we meet with people outside our company, we will have no choice but to keep wearing a mask in consideration of them."

An East Japan Railway Co. employee said, "Most passengers are expected to continue wearing masks for a while. The scenery at stations is unlikely to change much."

In schools, students will no longer be required to wear masks but can opt to do so if concerned about their health. Earlier Friday, Kishida said the government will not urge students and teachers to wear face masks at school graduation ceremonies slated for March.

Provided preventative health measures are put in place, such as adequate ventilation in rooms, students and teachers will not be requested to wear protective face masks during upcoming school graduation ceremonies, except when singing in groups, Kishida said.

Meanwhile, the government will suggest that schools do not force people who wish to keep wearing masks to remove them, he told reporters in Saitama Prefecture, near Tokyo.

Currently, Japan's education ministry recommends that students wear face masks in school whenever it is difficult to keep sufficient distance from others indoors. Wearing a mask during outdoor activities is not considered necessary.

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