• Kyodo

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Around 82 million cloth masks procured by Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic, dubbed "Abenomasks" by the public, have gone unused, a government spokesman said Wednesday, sparking criticism that taxpayer's money has been wasted.

The number of masks in storage as of March accounts for more than half of the 140 million the government had intended to supply to older people and child care facilities amid shortages of nonwoven and other types of mask.

Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's plan to distribute two cloth masks to each household in the nation last year was widely derided by the public, with many complaining the Abenomasks were too small and arrived too late or not at all.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki said during a news conference that the government had finished distributing cloth masks to households but switched to an on-demand basis for care facilities for older people, which had led to the surplus.

The revelation followed media reports that the Board of Audit has looked into the matter, and will include it in its annual financial review in November.

According to the reports, the 82 million masks cost taxpayers about ¥11.5 billion ($101 million) — and another ¥600 million to keep them in storage from August 2020 to this March.

Isozaki denied that the Liberal Democratic Party-led government had missed a step by overestimating demand, saying the plan was an "effective way to prevent infections amid the supply shortage in masks last year.

"Based on the situation at the time, I think it was appropriate," he said, adding that the government will "give consideration as necessary" as to how to utilize the surplus.

"Abenomask" was trending Wednesday on Twitter, with opposition parties voicing outrage ahead of Sunday's general election at what they said was a waste of taxpayer money.

"We called for the plan to be changed many times, but Prime Minister Abe saw it as necessary," tweeted Renho, a senior member of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. "Now no one, including Prime Minister Abe, is wearing the Abenomask."

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