Japanese education minister Keiko Nagaoka on Thursday expressed the hope that students will be allowed to attend their graduation ceremonies in the spring without having to wear face masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Later in the day, however, the minister also told reporters that the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is "yet to decide" on the issue "at this point", but will swiftly start discussions.
The Kishida administration has been eager to ease rules to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus from May, with critics saying that face-to-face communication among students is crucial for school education.
In a parliamentary committee session, Nagaoka, minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, said parents will be able to decide whether their children are allowed to remove their masks during their farewell events, which are typically held in March.
Nagaoka added those who want to continue wearing face masks should be respected, as many people have remained worried about being infected with the coronavirus, first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
In a major policy shift in its response to the outbreak, Kishida's government recently decided it will downgrade the legal status of COVID-19 to the same category as common infectious diseases, such as seasonal flu, to relax preventive measures.
Currently, the education ministry recommends that students wear face masks in school when it is difficult to keep sufficient distance from others indoors, while wearing a mask during outdoor activities is not considered necessary.
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 that the decision to wear a mask, indoors or outdoors, will be up to individual choice.