By KAE KAWASHIMA/ Staff Writer
April 30, 2020 at 19:11 JST
Early in April, a woman in Tokyo’s Shinbashi district stood outside a multi-tenant building holding a sign that announced the arrival of new face masks.
But her sign was not for the drug store inside the building, located near JR Shinbashi Station. Like almost all drugstores in the capital, it posted a sign that read, “Masks are sold out.”
Instead, piles of boxes containing masks were on display at an unusual location: a discount ticket shop. The boxes, each containing 50 masks, were priced at 4,500 yen ($42).
Amid face mask shortages in Tokyo sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, mysterious mask-selling middlemen have ensured a steady supply to many Tokyo businesses that don’t even usually sell the product.
UNANNOUNCED SALES PITCHES
Since the coronavirus hit Japan, long lines of people desperately searching for face masks at drugstores, supermarkets or anywhere for that matter, have become a daily sight.
Yet the ticket shop had an abundance of masks but no line--just the occasional customer.
Several other building tenants, including a juice stand and health food store, were also selling masks at around 4,000 to 4,500 yen per box containing 50 masks. Some stores even charged 100 yen per mask.
Many drugstore owners unable to procure enough for their own establishments might wonder how, exactly, that could happen.
The owner of the discount ticket shop said he was approached by a mysterious man one day who claimed to be a wholesale dealer.
He came to the shop out of the blue and asked, “Don’t you want to buy masks made in China?”
“It’s 60 to 70 yen per mask,” he told the shop owner.
After that, two or three similar dealers a day came by the shop to make sales pitches.
But the owner did not buy masks from the unannounced solicitors.
Instead, he procured boxes of masks made in China from an acquaintance, in increments of 5,000.
In one day alone, he said he reached a sales record of about 200 boxes.
SHIN-OKUBO WELL STOCKED
Masks have also popped up at many stores in Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo area, where many Korean and other non-Japanese owned businesses operate on the outskirts of Shinjuku.
Many Korean cosmetic stores, restaurants and knickknack shops along the Okubo-dori street displayed inventories of masks in late April.
Staff at a grocery store near JR Shin-Okubo Station, which is selling boxes of 50 masks at 3,200 yen, said a previously unknown wholesaler had suddenly contacted the store.
“Why don’t you sell masks imported from China?” he suggested.
Many owners of businesses selling masks in Shin-Okubo, Shinbashi and other areas said they were approached by a middleman mask dealer who said he connects stores in Japan with Chinese manufacturers.
The Asahi Shimbun located one such middleman, a resident of Kanagawa Prefecture in his 40s.
He works as a freelance consultant, frequently dealing with many trading firms and Chinese companies.
Around late January, when China was in the grips of its coronavirus outbreak, he said an offer came along to sell masks made in Japan to China.
Weeks later, the situation reversed, and Japan faced a serious shortage of masks.
In early April, the consultant said he purchased a total of 90,000 masks from a trading company, which shipped them through Yokohama Port.
The cost was 60 yen per mask. He said he then adds several dozen yen to the price and sells them to companies and businesses in his circle, such as beauty salons, only to effectively break even on them.
“There’s practically no profit,” he said.
He said he personally knows trading companies connected to China and merchants with relatives in China that have “imported masks as a side business.”
Not all traders are trustworthy, he said. Some wholesalers have tried to sell him masks made of extremely thin fabric, prompting the man to ask for samples to check product quality in advance.
There are still far from enough masks for every shopper. Yet, slowly but surely, masks are returning to drugstore shelves and to other places that regularly sell them.
Could that spell the end of black market masks?
A Shin-Okubo luggage store owner, 49, thinks so.
He sells masks in packs of five at the price of 358 yen with the aim of bringing in more customers for bags.
“The expiration date for these masks is approaching, I guess.”
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