Photo/Illutration Cloth masks distributed by the government of then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrive at a Tokyo post office in April. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

I recently had a surprise re-encounter with "Abenomasks," the face masks that the government distributed to every household in Japan this past spring.

I never expected to come across them in the warehouse of the Fukushima Museum in Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. 

They were stored in a white box marked "Materials related to the novel coronavirus infection."

Since late February, the prefectural museum has been collecting familiar items associated with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Other objects in the white box included a postcard announcing the cancellation of an art exhibition; a novel "daruma" doll representing Amabie, a legendary Japanese "yokai" monster believed to protect humans from epidemics; and a sake bottle containing alcohol disinfectant that was hastily produced by a local sake brewery.

"Testimonies given by people may change over time, but physical items don't," said Tadasuke Tsukuba, 47, a curator at the museum.

One reason for starting the collection was the lack of any systematically organized materials pertaining to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

Even though that was only a century ago, there are too many things about it that defy verification today.

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, the museum has been curating all kinds of "earthquake legacy" memorabilia and wanted to apply the same approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the museum has no plans for holding a "coronavirus exhibition" any time soon.

"For now, the important thing is to just collect anything we can, so that people will be able to analyze them 100 years or 200 years later," explained Tsukuba.

Similar undertakings are in progress at other museums and universities as well.

As a matter of fact, I have a flier I just cannot throw away.

Distributed by a neighborhood supermarket when the government declared a state of emergency in spring, the flier urged customers to "wear a mask" and "come to the store with as few people as possible."

Looking at it now, I can vividly recall the looks of utter exhaustion on the faces of store workers.

American poet James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) famously noted, "History is clarified experience."

Physical objects convey the atmosphere of the times with clarity.

A century or two from now, I wonder how our experiences will be discussed by people at an exhibition recalling the COVID-19 pandemic.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 26

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.