Desperate to protect themselves against the new virus that causes COVID-19 but unable to buy face masks due to shortages, people in Japan are going to unusual lengths with DIY solutions.
Some in China have already been seen with workarounds such as using fruit skins, plastic bottles, sanitary pads and even bras as makeshift face masks, and now many in Japan are also coming up with ingenious solutions of their own.
Fears over the disease caused by the new coronavirus have led to worldwide mask shortages, triggering not only panic-buying but also criminal acts as opportunists get their hands on masks to sell at inflated, fear-driven prices — recently, thieves stole 6,000 surgical masks from a hospital in Kobe.
In Japan, some of those who have come across empty store shelves and refuse to pay the exorbitant prices set by online gougers have turned to depression-era kinds of frugal creativity.
Handmade masks are trending on social media, with some on Instagram posting tutorial videos on how to construct them using handkerchiefs, scarves or even coffee filters and elastic bands.
Some experts advise that hand washing is more effective than wearing a face mask, or go as far as saying that reusable masks are dangerous to your health. But many still believe that any mask is better protection than no mask at all.
Virologists, on the other hand, have doubts about the effectiveness of masks against airborne viruses, although there is some evidence to suggest they can help prevent hand-to-mouth transfer.
Handicraft magazine Cotton Time, published by Shufu To Seikatsu Sha Co., recently shared a step-by-step guide instructing how to make a DIY face mask on its website using a free downloadable sewing pattern. The team was surprised to see a giant spike in page views.
“Our magazine is published bimonthly, but we couldn’t afford to wait, so we decided to put it up on our website. At times like these, you simply help because that’s the right thing to do,” said Yumi Ishida, the magazine’s editor-in-chief.
“We’re getting 10 times more traffic than we normally get. A lot of people have been sharing DIY masks on social media, but we’ve used our craft expertise to come up with this 3D mask pattern. You don’t need a sewing machine. Even if you haven’t sewn since your home economics class in school, you’ll figure it out.”
According to the Japan Hygiene Products Industry Association, more than 5.5 billion disposable face masks were manufactured in Japan in 2018, of which 4.3 billion were for private use.
In trend conscious Japan, masks for some people are a fashion accessory worn to make a statement, with no consideration given to health or hygiene when masking up. For others, it is about conforming to norms of social etiquette.
But the new virus has made face masks and hand sanitizers essential, especially for the elderly.
DIY mask instructions have been making the rounds on YouTube and social media, with some craftspeople selling handmade pieces and others sharing creative hacks on how to make a mask with a few basic supplies found in most homes.
Yuki Inomata, a blogger and fabric crafter who goes by @neige__y on Instagram, says she expected an influx of visitors to her blog when the news of the coronavirus broke because of what she experienced during the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic.
“At that time, page views soared from a typical 500 per day to 4,000. When I saw what was happening (with the new coronavirus), I had to put my jobs on hold and focus on helping by sharing my skills with others,” Inomata said.
“I see people using their hands to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze. I don’t know if masks actually keep people from getting or giving viruses, but at least it stops the flecks of saliva from flying into the air,” she said.
With surgical masks from major retailers near impossible to buy now in Japan, Inomata says working out how to stitch your own version is so much easier today with skill-sharing platforms such as social media.
On the Twitter account of @nekohnd, you can find an illustrated guide to making masks using paper towels, rubber bands and staples.
A tweet from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s Disaster Response Division (@MPD_bousai) offers advice on how to wear masks and dispose of them properly, while a free DIY mask instruction manual is available in English, Chinese and Korean on the Oita Prefectural Government’s website (www.pref.oita.jp/site/bosaianzen/shingatacorona.html)