Tokyo Report | Company | East Asia

Japan remains closed to international tourists and has yet to plan to reopen despite a global trend to lift pandemic entry restrictions.

On April 13, Japan announced that family members of foreign residents in Japan will be allowed to apply for short-term visits as the government gradually eases its COVID-19-related border restrictions. The welcome move comes after the government began allowing business travelers and some international students to enter in time for the spring school semester. No specific date has been set for the resumption of international tourism, suspended since the start of the pandemic.

The rigid border restrictions imposed by COVID-19 in Japan have been criticized as “isolationist” and “xenophobic” due to the differential treatment of Japanese nationals and non-resident foreigners. Japan has taken a cautious approach to easing restrictions and has been known to close the border to new arrivals in response to the spread of variants. In December, after a brief two-week window allowing business travelers and international students to enter Japan, the government reimposed the entry ban on foreign newcomers until “more is known on the Omicron variant”.

Japan’s pandemic-hit economy is at risk of shrinking again due to the spread of Omicron and rising food and fuel prices, which are hampering consumer spending. The record high Japanese yen would encourage inbound tourism and play a significant role in currency stabilization and job creation. But the border closures prevent Japan from taking advantage of the weak yen.

On April 11, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio said that an appropriate decision on restarting tourism will be determined “based on the infection status and movements of other countries.”

Two and a half years later, Japan remains an exception among the G-7 industrialized countries, which have reopened to tourists and eliminated quarantines. The World Health Organization’s emergency committee has recommended member states remove or relax travel bans imposed after the spread of Omicron, calling the policies “incomprehensible”. The US and UK have removed most travel restrictions related to COVID-19, citing travel bans as ineffective in controlling the outbreak. It is unclear what Kishida is waiting for.

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The government’s reluctance to reopen the border to tourists may be due to its sensitivity to public opinion and the pernicious idea that COVID-19 is brought by foreigners. The upcoming upper house election this summer also means Kishida’s administration is unlikely to do anything that could jeopardize his chances of winning. In a recent opinion poll by public broadcaster NHK, more than 65% of respondents said they agreed with the border measures or thought they should be tightened.

Experts in Japan say the rapid border closures prompted by Omicron late last year were meant to “buy time”. But they failed to prevent a nationwide outbreak, questioning the scientific rationale for maintaining border restrictions. Currently, Omicron is the dominant strain in Japan, and the country is facing a rebound in infections and an impending “seventh wave” after the state of emergency was lifted on March 17. Even so, for the first time in two years, Japan’s Golden Week four-national holiday has begun without a COVID-19 state of emergency. It’s a milestone that was celebrated without the typical flurry of shopping and sightseeing of spring tourists.

Japan has recorded the lowest number of deaths from COVID-19 among G-7 countries. Some exports attribute this to its high vaccination rate; 80% of the population received two doses of vaccine. But Japan still relies heavily on COVID-19 border restrictions and maintains a relatively low daily PCR testing capacity of around 390,000 nationwide. Testing is widely seen as the key to controlling the virus. But in Japan, free PCR tests remain limited to people with symptoms with some free PCR tests available for asymptomatic cases in limited locations.

In 2020, an immigration office official explained that the entry ban for foreigners with visas was dependent on PCR testing capacity at airports. While Tokyo’s Haneda Airport has sped up PCR processing times to around an hour, Narita Airport is under increased pressure with the daily cap on new visa arrivals rising from 5,000 in March to 10,000 to April 11. But the airport’s quarantine processing facilities are already at full capacity, with crowds expected to wait for up to seven hours in total.

Before the pandemic, Japan was a tourist paradise. In 2018, Abe Shinzo, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, positioned Japan’s tourism boom as a strategy for economic growth as well as the revitalization of regional communities suffering from rapid aging and low birth rates. He announced a target of doubling the number of visitors to 40 million a year by 2020, with the Tokyo Summer Olympics being the pinnacle of tourism. However, the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the spread of the deadly Delta variant in the summer of 2021 in Tokyo and abroad have derailed plans to allow domestic and international spectators to attend the very expected Tokyo Olympics.

Although Olympic athletes were allowed to participate in the Games, the strict blanket ban on new foreign non-residents led to a chaotic season opener for Japan’s professional basketball and volleyball leagues in 2020, newly recruited athletes unable to enter the country. It also led to the cancellation of the prestigious 2021 Figure Skating Grand Prix Final Championships.

International tourism is unlikely to be given the green light until the second half of the year following the outcome of the upper house elections, but staying the course will see the ruling party answer for the damage inflicted on the economy.

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