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Pedestrians wearing face masks walk across a street in Tokyo earlier this month. Mask-wearing has been commonplace in Japan for years. Photo: EPA

Japan has anti-mask protesters too, led by a coronavirus-denying political hopeful

  • Masayuki Hiratsuka ran for election as governor of Tokyo last month on a platform of pandemic denial, but attracted less than 1 per cent of the vote
  • Undeterred, he and his followers gathered outside a busy Tokyo railway station on Sunday for an anti-mask protest – sparking an online backlash
A small but highly visible demonstration in Japan’s capital against mask wearing and other measures to halt the spread of coronavirus has triggered a backlash against the head of a fringe political party who organised it and those taking part.

The three-hour protest on a congested plaza in front of Tokyo’s Shibuya Station on Sunday drew around 100 people, including families with babies and young children. Attendees did not wear masks and brandished placards saying they refused to practice social distancing, with others chanting that they were against any form of “self-restraint”.

Attendees at the ‘Cluster Protest’ in Tokyo on Sunday rally against the wearing of face coverings and other antivirus measures. Photo: Twitter

Afterwards, organiser Masayuki Hiratsuka urged his followers to join him on the Yamanote Line – one of Tokyo’s busiest railway lines that connects many of the city’s major urban centres – to spread the group’s message.

The intention, as he explained in a YouTube video published the day before the protest, was for his followers to confront other passengers on the train and make them “feel stupid” for wearing masks. In the end, only a dozen or so protesters went along for the ride.
Masayuki Hiratsuka in a political campaign video posted to YouTube in June, in which he said the novel coronavirus is ‘just a cold’. With auto-generated English subtitles. Photo: YouTube

Hiratsuka, who heads the Popular Sovereign Party, ran for election as governor of Tokyo in July on a platform of coronavirus denial. In speeches, interviews and campaign materials, the 38-year-old anti-vaccine advocate implored people to ignore government guidelines, blamed the media for stoking fear about the pandemic and argued that being exposed to the virus would merely help strengthen the immune system.

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His insistence that the coronavirus is “just a cold” and demand that people be allowed to “return to their lives before Covid-19” did not resonate with the wider public, however: he won just 0.15 per cent of the vote in the election, with fewer than 10,000 of Tokyo’s 6 million voters backing him.

Despite his electoral drubbing, Hiratsuka is continuing his campaign of denial and appears to have developed a small following who took part in Sunday’s so-called Cluster Protest.

Attendees at Sunday’s ‘Cluster Protest’ in Tokyo rally against face coverings and other antivirus measures. Photo: Twitter

Yet his actions, and those of his followers, have attracted widespread criticism online.

One Twitter user compared the group “to terrorists and extremists”, while another said they were “acting like they are in a cult”.

The fact that adults were encouraging their children to take part in the anti-mask protest was described as “frightening”, with one person saying that attendees should be denied medical care if they ended up catching coronavirus.

Similarly strongly worded condemnations could be found across Japanese social media and in the comments sections of online newspaper articles, where the protesters were pilloried for believing conspiracy theories and lambasted for putting their own “freedoms” ahead of other people’s right not to contract the virus.

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Anti-mask protests have been reported elsewhere amid the pandemic, from the United States and Europe to Australia, but such a movement is surprising in Japan, where mask-wearing out of politeness and consideration for other people has been commonplace for years.

Face coverings are near ubiquitous during the spring hay fever season and throughout most of the winter months, as a way of preventing the wearer from spreading any respiratory illnesses that they may have.