Photo/Illutration The cloth mask distributed to all households in Japan (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The much-ridiculed “Abenomask” was apparently so unpopular that millions of the cloth masks have gone unused and are languishing in storage.

At his Oct. 27 morning news conference, Yoshihiko Isozaki, deputy chief Cabinet secretary, all but confirmed the contents of an article that ran in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun’s morning edition that day about the government's face mask distribution program from the early days of the pandemic.

The Nikkei article reported the cloth masks that were to be distributed to care facilities for senior citizens had not been delivered and about 600 million yen ($5.3 million) in government funds were spent storing the masks between August 2020 and March 2021.

Isozaki said a total of 83 million masks have been kept in storage. The government had purchased about 140 million masks for care facilities.

This was part of a separate program, aimed at senior citizens in care facilities and pregnant women, from the one for delivering masks to every household in Japan.

Isozaki explained that the government had already distributed face masks to each household in Japan, but it changed its distribution procedure for care facilities and only sent masks to facilities that requested them.

The Board of Audit conducted a study into the mask policy and, according to a source, found that of the 290 million masks purchased by the government, about 83 million masks--worth some 11.51 billion yen--were not distributed and, as of the end of March, have instead been kept in storage.

A source with the Board of Audit said no judgment will be rendered on whether taxpayer money was wasted, since the stored masks can still be used some day.

In spring 2020, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had promoted the masks as a priority safety measure to keep novel coronavirus infections from spreading.

Abe promised to send one mask to each household in Japan to help alleviate the shortage of medical face masks.

But the small size of the government's masks made it difficult for most people to completely cover both their mouth and nose. 

Not only were the masks criticized for being too small, but many were also defective. Some were dirty and others contained insects. 

This all led to widespread mockery of the policy and the nickname Abenomask, which means Abe's masks.

(Ryota Goto contributed to this article.)