On the first day of business of the new year, many retail store doors swing open to admit crowds of eager customers in search of bargains and fukubukuro --special "lucky bags" of merchandise in which a fortunate few will hit the jackpot.
Despite the upbeat seasonal mood, these activities take place during the season of colds and flu. Yukan Fuji (Dec 27) sprang into action after learning that the corporate communications department of Aeon, nation's largest general retailer, in early December had instructed its personnel managers to notify staff that "in principle," those working in direct contact with customers would be prohibited from wearing masks.
The web was full of posts critical of Aeon's policy. After all, an advisory from no less than the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor itself had recognized the wearing of such masks to be effective in the suppressing of germs typically spread by coughs and sneezes.
Actually Aeon's no-mask policy is not etched in stone and the company says it makes exceptions for certain conditions. As a spokesperson put it, "The worker may communicate with their supervisor and take action accordingly."
What's more, workers in the meat and fresh foods departments, for example, wear masks throughout the year. And for that matter anyone who might be coming down with a cold, or who suffers from hay fever, is permitted to wear them.
Working at damage control, Aeon explained to Yukan Fuji, "The thinking behind the directive banning the masks was done out of consideration of employees' appearance, but perhaps we did not provide a sufficient explanation."
Yukan Fuji then proceeded to survey major retailers to query their policies about the wearing of surgical masks by store personnel, and found considerable variance in their policies.
For instance, branches of stores operated by Mitsukoshi Isetan Holdings in the Tokyo area, with the exception of food handlers, bans wearing the masks in principle. The reason, the reporter was informed, was "This has been widely remarked by the customers themselves. In some cases masks make it harder to hear what the speaker is saying, and it further inhibits communications in that one can't determine the expression on the speaker's face.
"It also makes it harder to identify and track down individual sales personnel, and conveys the impression that the person might be suffering from a serious disease. And wearing one makes it more difficult to talk to the customers," he added. "If a worker feels poorly, they should call in sick. And if the symptoms are light enough to come to work, they can be assigned other tasks that don't involve meeting customers."
At the Takashima department store, on the other hand, the policy concerning wearing masks is not company-wide, but determined on a case-by-case basis at each branch.
"We feel it's better that staff who serve customers don't wear one," says a spokesperson in the public relations and investor relations office. "That said, from the standpoint of worker health and prevention, the decision is left to people at the site."
The PR spokesperson for the company operating the group controlling the Daimaru and Matsuzakaya chains was quoted as saying that staff waiting on customers may wear masks, with the choice "left to that individual's discretion."
"According to some points of view, the masks typically sold on the market are ineffective in preventing the spread of contagions," observes Dr Hideomi Nakahara, a professor at the Yamano College of Aesthetics in Hachioji City. "Still, I'm a bit put off to see employers trying to control the situation. Isn't it better to accord staff their own freedom of choice in the matter of whether or not they wear masks?"© Japan Today