Where are all the masks? And where’s the toilet paper? Nikkei Business (Feb. 28) suggested that panic buying in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, which also occurred in eastern Japan following the catastrophic earthquake of March 2011, may be influenced in part by people’s collective memory — particularly among older generations who experienced shortages of household goods following the “oil shock” that occurred after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

A resident of Tokyo’s Mitaka neighborhood in his 70s was observed buying two 18-roll packs of toilet paper and two five-box packs of tissues. Asked why he’d gone to the store, he replied, “My wife and son told me toilet paper might be in short supply.”

When the reporter pointed out that the quantity seemed like a lot for only him and his wife, the man replied, “Well, I might share some of it with my son’s family.”

Kazuya Nakayachi, a professor at the Psychology Department of Doshisha University, tells the Mainichi Shimbun (March 1), “People who hear about (possible) shortages always buy twice as many given items, in effect helping to create the shortage, and merchandise starts to disappear from shops. Then other people who observe what’s happening also buy (in bulk), and it becomes a social phenomenon.”

“If the items concerned are cheap enough that one won’t suffer any loss even if purchasing many, then as long as it’s something definitely useful in one’s life, no matter how people look at it, they see nothing strange about what they’re doing,” Nakayachi adds. His explanation, it would seem, applies equally to other countries where panic buying has occurred.

Japan’s paper manufacturers insist there’s nothing to the rumors of looming shortages and that, in any event, their goods are not sourced from China, as had been implied. To demonstrate how major retailers are making efforts to reassure the public, Yukan Fuji (March 7) reported that selected outlets of Aeon Co. and Ito Yokado Co. have devoted considerable floor space to displaying toilet paper, stacked five packs high, albeit with limitations on the size of purchases. A spokesman for Aeon says it hopes “to have things back to normal by the weekend (of March 7-8) on a nationwide basis.”

If the crisis continues, Spa (March 10) warned of impending shortages and price increases. It issued overviews on how 10 sectors, including travel and hotels, souvenirs, drug stores, department stores, izakaya (traditional Japanese pubs), event organizers and the sex trade, are being affected.

Spa raised the likelihood that shortages of other goods may also be in the offing. Items such as spring fashion wear, bicycles, vinyl umbrellas, smartphone peripherals and vegetables may become unavailable.

“In the garment trade, concerns have been widening that from April onward, the supply of spring and summer fashion items will be delayed,” says Yoshiki Hayashi of WWD Japan, a publisher of trade magazines. “Seventy percent of clothing sold in Japan comes from China. Along with necessary items such as fabric, thread, buttons and fasteners, and so on. Even if production of branded items resumes, if just one phase of production is interrupted, then finished products won’t be supplied.”

According to the editor of a woman’s magazine, the contents of appendices for the March and April editions, based mainly on items from China, have already been disrupted.

An employee at a trading firm, meanwhile, says bicycles expected to be put on the market for the new company hires starting their jobs in April are in short supply. Some 85 percent of these are sourced from China, but no new shipments have arrived since January.

“Likewise for vinyl umbrellas, 99 percent of which come from China,” he adds. “It looks likely that there will be a shortfall by the time of the rainy season (which starts in June).”

Prices are said to be on the rise for frozen foods, onions and garlic, which are also supplied from China.

“We’re concerned that ordinary households have begun to hoard them,” the manager of a Japanese-style restaurant in Tokyo is quoted as saying.

With downtown office buildings emptying out as company staff stay home to engage in telework, some salaried wage earners deprived of overtime pay may start moonlighting. As people avoid taking meals in restaurants, more business will be channeled to pizza shops or restaurants specializing in delivery.

“I expect to see lots more people signing up to deliver food for Uber Eats,” a newspaper reporter tells Asahi Geino (March 12).

If there’s a silver lining to the panic buying, it’s the time to hunt for bargains. Weekly Playboy (March 16) notes that the double-whammy — the drop-off in visitors from overseas and cancellation of spring social events — will mean lower prices for a variety of items.

Take canned beer for instance. The stores have boosted stocks ahead of hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) parties, many of which will probably be canceled. The unsold cans are likely to be heavily discounted.

Other items predicted to sell at considerably discounted prices include pricy cuts of tuna, confections flavored with powdered green tea and premium types of instant ramen noodles. Due to the decline in foreign visitors, deluxe rice cookers and high-priced Japanese-brand wristwatches will probably be heavily discounted, along with sporting gear, cameras and tableware.

Attractive prices are also in store for visitors to remote islands in the archipelago, including Hachijojima, which is administered by Tokyo, Miyakojima in Okinawa and the Goto Islands of Nagasaki. What was causing the surge in visitors to Hachijojima, 250 kilometers south of Tokyo? A traveler in his 40s tells a reporter for J-Cast News (Feb. 25), “It’s an island, so one feels safer because there aren’t many people around.”

The local town, Hachijo-machi, has yet to report even a single case of coronavirus infection, and nary a mask can be seen being worn by the local populace. The one place to see masks, of course, was at the island’s airport, worn by people heading back to the mainland.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.