Masks can now come off in Japan as government eases Covid-19 guidelines

Japan is one of the last major economies to relax official guidance on the mask coverings. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - The smiles and screams at Tokyo Disneyland may be more obvious on Monday, as the amusement park and much of Japan relaxes face mask norms that have defined the three-year Covid-19 pandemic.

Disney park operator Oriental Land, East Japan Railway and cinema operator Toho are among the major companies allowing patrons to go maskless starting on Monday, based on revised government guidance announced in February.

But a rapid behavioural change is unlikely, given a long history of mask usage in Japan and a pollen onslaught that has given hay fever sufferers one of the worst spring seasons in years.

“Mask-wearing was part of our culture even before Covid-19,” said Tohoku University professor Hitoshi Oshitani, who was an architect of Japan’s Covid-19 response.

“I think many people will be wearing masks even after the rules are relaxed.”

Japan is one of the last major economies to relax official guidance on the coverings, whose usage has been nearly universal throughout the country even without firm regulations or penalties governing their use.

“Regarding masks, I think it is safer to wear one when riding public transportation to guard against contagion,” Mr Yutaka Izawa, 60, said as he walked around the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo.

South Korea dialled back most requirements on indoor masking in January, while Singapore allowed bare faces on public transport in February.

The United States and England halted most mask mandates early in 2022.

Ms Hanako Kuno, 35, said she is used to living mask-free due to her overseas business trips.

“Personally, I think it’s fine to leave them off, and especially when I’m outside, I don’t see the point in wearing them,” said Ms Kuno, who runs a human resources company.

Japan has already eased norms on masks, allowing maskless speeches in Parliament and permitting schools to decide whether to require them at commencement ceremonies in March.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida entered the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo on Monday without wearing a mask. His aides and security guards also did not wear a mask.

Chief government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno said last week that masks would no longer be required at Cabinet meetings starting from Monday and that decisions on the coverings would be left up to individual workspaces.

“As of today, mask-wearing is at the discretion of each individual,” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told reporters on Monday. “However, hay fever is also a pretty intense this season, so I think it boils down to the fact that you can wear them for different reasons.”

Japan’s Covid-19 vaccination rate stands at more than 80 per cent, and cases have ebbed after an eighth wave of infections that peaked in early January.

Health experts in Japan have pointed to widespread mask use along with an embrace of hygiene and social distancing for the country’s relatively lower death toll from Covid-19.

Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura, one of the more conservative voices among Japan’s pandemic response experts, said that voluntary masking on public transport and in other spaces could have a continuing benefit in protecting against infection.

“That could have been incorporated as part of our daily habit,” he said. “The governmental decision in this time has spoiled that intent.” REUTERS

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