Japan towns offer masks as reward for tax donation

Tokyo (AFP) –


Japanese towns offer popular local specialities from wagyu beef to tuna as gifts to citizens who donate money in a special tax scheme, but the coronavirus pandemic has made masks this year's must-have item.

People have been giving up to 7,000 yen ($65) in return for a "gift" of locally-produced reusable linen and cotton masks, said an official in the central Japanese town in Aisho.

"I was surprised. There have been many donations since we began to offer the masks on April 1," Aisho town official Junki Urabe told AFP.

Urabe said that about 100 donations have been made for masks in the past week, while popular local blueberries only attracted 20.

"Our local beef and rice are also still popular, but I feel masks are in high demand due to the virus outbreak," said Urabe.

Under the special system, people can donate to municipalities and prefectures of their choice to become eligible for deductions in their income and residential taxes.

In return, the regions also offer local products -- such as quality beef or expensive fruit -- in the hope of attracting contributions.

- 'State of emergency' -

Launched in 2008, the scheme has grown from gathering 8.1 billion yen in donations to 512.7 billion yen in 2018, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

It has sparked local rivalry, with towns competing to offer precious gifts, prompting the central government to limit the value of rewards.

Muroto city in western Kochi prefecture has also seen strong demand for cotton masks made with local indigo dye -- available for a cool 9,500 yen.

"We started giving out the masks for donors since last year, but donations have increased since coronavirus," city official Shinya Katsuta said.

Disposable surgical masks made with non-woven fabric -- commonly worn during Japan's flu and pollen seasons -- have become extremely scarce due to high demand and a shortage of raw materials amid the pandemic.

Electronic maker Sharp, which has been producing masks for medical facilities after a government request, announced this week that individuals could also buy their surgical masks at the price of 3,000 yen for 50.

Japan is under a nationwide state of emergency with people urged to refrain from travelling from the cities to their home regions during the forthcoming Golden Week holidays.

And some cities have taken to offering homesick would-be travellers gifts to encourage them to stay at home.

A city in northern Niigata prefecture handed out a free five-kilo (11-pound) bag of rice and a handmade mask to students there who are staying put rather than travelling home to families.

And a city in southern Miyazaki prefecture is donating a portion of its famous mangos to those who decided to cancel their visit to the city during the upcoming holidays.

The virus has so far infected nearly 12,000 and killed around 290 in Japan, which has so far been spared the magnitude of the outbreak seen in the United States and Europe.