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Japan ends mask order

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TOKYO (AP) — Japan dropped its mask-wearing requirement after three years on Monday, but almost nothing has changed in the country once highly regarded for its virus protection efficacy.

Most of the passengers who left the main station in Tokyo in the morning wore masks as they went to work. So were the people on the streets. In a televised meeting of the parliamentary budget committee, some lawmakers were still wearing masks, although Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was not wearing them when he arrived at his office on Monday.

Baseball fans who gathered outside the Tokyo Dome hours before Monday’s games in Australia, the Czech Republic, China and South Korea also wore masks. They will also be able to sing without a mask because this ban has also been lifted.

Dropping mask-wearing requirements is one of the latest steps the Japanese government has taken to ease COVID-19 rules in public places as it tries to expand business and other activities.

“From today, wearing a mask is left to the individual’s discretion. We don’t force anyone to put it on or take it off,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters upon arriving at his office. “I think there will be more occasions when I take off my mask.”

However, Kishida asked people to use masks around vulnerable people to protect them from infection risks.

In a country where the pressure for compliance is so strong, it was to be expected that many people would continue wearing them for the time being. The outdoor mask requirement was dropped last summer, but many continue to wear it.

Restaurants, stores and airlines have removed signs requiring customers to wear masks. But many of their employees keep their masks on to show consideration for customers and others who need protection.

The popular chain, Ramen Jiro, tweeted on Monday that it is up to customers to wear masks, but that employees will continue to wear them for the time being. She also asked clients to cooperate with hygiene measures, such as not talking loudly.

Spectators at baseball and football games will no longer be required to wear masks and will be allowed to cheer without one. The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks announced that visitors and home staff can use their own judgment on masks starting Monday.

Last fall, Japan stopped requiring COVID-19 tests for arrivals who had received at least three injections — part of the country’s cautious easing of measures after nearly closing its borders to foreign tourists for nearly two years.

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