Ensuring enough face masks before a second wave of coronavirus

As fears of a second wave of coronavirus persist, Japanese government officials have been trying to persuade industry to produce masks domestically with the support of subsidies. Japan relied on China for over 70 percent of its face masks before the coronavirus pandemic.

Supply has doubled since February, when stocks were nearly depleted, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The recent increase is due to a resumption of imports, increased domestic production, and Japanese companies getting into the business.

Masks made by electronics maker Sharp have become so popular that the company has adopted a lottery system to sell them. There have been nearly 100 times more applications than can be met by supply.

Houseware manufacturer Iris Ohyama has introduced equipment to make melt-blown, non-woven fabric, an essential material in mask production. The company aims to build a streamlined production line in Japan. Many manufacturers have had trouble getting enough melt-blown fabric, which has been mostly imported from China.

But this raises the question of whether these businesses will continue producing masks domestically once the pandemic recedes. Demand will likely drop, and stocks of the materials to make them could quickly pile up.

According to a survey by paper maker Daio Paper, 75 percent of consumers say they want masks that are made in Japan. The firm says it wants to contribute to a stable supply of such essential products.

The key to sustaining domestic production will be supporting businesses through periods of price volatility for raw materials prices and finished products. Company managers say they had difficulty in trying to jump-start production, even once their facilities were fully equipped, because of the low profit margins for specialized fabrics.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes that fundamental supply shortages exist, and current global demand might be 10 times higher than world production capacity. Self-sufficiency and development of strategic stocks may be key to mitigating any risks.