TOKYO -- Japanese, for decades famous for wearing masks either to filter out springtime pollen or to keep cold and flu season at bay, are now demanding the things in ever greater variations as they extend their habit into a new season, summer.
This is giving a range of companies, both domestic and overseas, from casual clothing purveyors to electronics makers, new opportunities to add value to a commodity people used to throw away at the end of every day.
Uniqlo, the big fast-fashion brand, was hesitant to make masks when the coronavirus pandemic first created a seemingly insatiable demand for them. But on June 19 it made a big splash in the burgeoning market. Customers formed a long line outside of its flagship store in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district as they waited for a chance to buy AIRism masks, which went on sale that day for 990 yen ($9.19) for a package of three.
The masks are made of an underwear material that the company markets as being cool and fast-drying. Consumers expect the masks to be more breathable during the summer, when Japan's humidity can be thick and stifling.
Fast Retailing, the operator of Uniqlo, plans to sell 500,000 packages of every week. "We want consumers to wear the AIRism masks throughout the year," CEO Tadashi Yanai said.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, most masks were of nonwoven fabrics made of plastics like polypropylene bonded with heat and an adhesive. Nonwoven fabrics are also used to make diapers and other household products.
But in late January, after the novel coronavirus waylaid the Chinese city of Wuhan, global supplies of these traditional masks began running low.
Unicharm and other Japanese household product makers stepped up production but could not meet soaring demand. Japanese importers began buying Chinese masks in bulk and ended up with coverings whose quality varied considerably, sparking consumer concern.
As Japan's coronavirus crisis was about to crescendo in March, Sharp began producing masks at its liquid crystal display plant in Taki Town, Mie Prefecture, central Japan. In April the electronics maker released boxes of 50 face masks for 2,980 yen, excluding consumption tax. Massive amounts of orders quickly overwhelmed the company's online shopping portal, forcing Sharp to put sales on hold and introduce a lottery system.
The company currently makes about 500,000 masks a day.
Household products maker Iris Ohyama is now able to produce most mask materials, including nonwoven fabrics, in Japan, without relying on suppliers in China and other countries. The company in June started making masks -- not for medical use -- at its plant in Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, and hopes to begin churning out about 150 million a month in August.
Material makers have been big beneficiaries of the mask boom. In 2019, nonwoven fabrics in Japan were mostly used for automotive filters and other industrial products. Medical and sanitary goods, including masks, accounted for 24% or so of material makers' output.
Before the pandemic, Japanese producers mostly ignored the face mask market as 80% of the products in the country were imported, and there were few opportunities to sell value-added variations.
The coronavirus changed that.
Toray Industries in May increased production of nonwoven fabrics for masks by 160%. The material maker also started producing nonwoven masks at its overseas diaper factories and began producing the things at its factory in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. Combined, the company is now able to produce 80 million nonwoven masks a month in Japan and abroad.
Mitsui Chemicals, whose mask production is at full capacity, plans to enhance its factories, and Kuraray will invest in its nonwoven plant in Okayama Prefecture so that it can produce high-performance filters for medical masks.
As wearing masks at all times while out in public becomes the new normal, the market is demanding new forms and functions.
Sporting goods maker Mizuno started selling masks made of stretchy bathing suit and sportswear materials as well as masks made of stay-cool materials. Masks made for athletes turned out to be a big hit with the general population that when the company began selling them in May, orders flooded in.
The sporting goods maker went from putting 50,000 masks up for sale to 870,000.
Some apparel makers are jumping into the market with fashion-conscious masks. Sanyo Shokai has released 16 types, including ones with checked and striped patterns, so buyers can choose the mask that best suits their mood or whose fabric best suits the season. The washable and reusable masks are only available on the company's website. The first batch sold out in an hour at 900 yen apiece, excluding tax.
Women's apparel maker Mash Holdings also started selling cloth masks, including bigger ones that make faces look thinner and three-dimensional masks that make noses appear taller.
Cross Plus, another women's clothing maker, sells 17 types of masks, including ones with checked and floral patterns, while Samantha Thavasa Japan has also entered the fray.
With all of this activity, Japan's mask shortage has eased.
Not too long ago supermarkets and drugstores used to have to shoo away hopeful customers with signs out front saying they had no masks. These days those same stores have shelves of the things. And varieties, too.