• Kyodo

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With demand for face masks still strong in Japan, a wide variety of stores have looked to cash in on people’s desire to protect themselves against the coronavirus’ insidious spread.

Various types of stores, ranging from health food vendors to beauty salons, have posted signs to indicate they have stocks of the coveted fabric disposable masks that are still quite difficult to find in drugstores.

The sudden proliferation of shops offering masks has led to questions raised about how they were able to procure them with shortages still widespread.

Inside a multitenant building near JR Shimbashi Station on Thursday afternoon, masks were being sold in health food shops and others that specialize in gift coupons. Masks were seen going for between ¥70 and ¥80 ($0.65 to $0.75) apiece.

The male manager of the gift coupon shop said that several vendors had approached him to sell him masks, including “brokers who seemed fishy.”

He procured masks from those he deemed trustworthy and has been selling them since early April. On good days, he can move around 10,000, he said.

At the Ameyoko shopping district in Ueno, an import distributor that sells wares like soccer equipment was selling not only masks made for general use but also the more robust types needed by health care workers.

Takatoshi Kawazoe, 72, the shop manager, said that he imported them directly from Vietnam and Taiwan at a cost of around ¥38 to ¥52 per mask.

As people became increasingly worried about catching the virus in February, the number of customers to his store dropped significantly.

“I was finding it difficult to pay the rent, and I thought I had to do something or I would be unable to stay in business,” Kawazoe said.

He then met a street vendor in Thailand who had large stocks of masks to sell. Later, he also started buying up masks from Taiwan.

A beauty salon in Shibuya, meanwhile, is selling masks from a wagon at the front of the store. A clerk said she sourced them from an acquaintance’s company that sells goods imported from countries like China and Vietnam.

“It seems like now we have more rival mask sellers as we haven’t sold out recently,” she said, adding, “I get really angry when we get criticized even if we have not been reselling them.”

The Japanese government has banned reselling of face masks to prevent would-be profiteers from taking advantage of a nationwide mask shortage by price-gouging via online marketplaces.

Stores, however, are free to sell them at will.

A cosmetic surgery clinic in front of Shimbashi Station also has masks on sale, priced at ¥500 for a packet of five, according to its website.

“We are selling some of the masks that we got for medical purposes. We can’t say how much we paid for them but we are not making a large profit,” a staff member said.

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