BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO — Despite pressure from the travel industry and domestic and foreign businesses that need to bring in personnel, Japan’s borders remain firmly shut to anyone other than Japanese nationals, or foreigners with permanent residency as the government attempts to keep the coronavirus at bay.
The Japan Business Federation recently described the government’s adherence to closed borders as the most effective way of controlling the virus as “unrealistic,” a policy echoed by seven chambers of commerce in Japan, including the American Chamber of Commerce, which in a joint statement issued in November called on the government here to ease the restrictions.
Pointing out that the regulations to enter Japan are “more difficult” than virtually all the nation’s economic partners, the statement said, “Permitting business travelers and students to once again enter Japan is a critical step toward Japan’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
“It will help to ensure that international businesses operating in Japan can continue serving their clients and customers in-country and is a necessary precondition to attracting new investment and talent from overseas to meet Japan’s economic goals,” it added.
That request, however, has so far fallen on deaf ears.
At present, anyone entering Japan from a foreign country is required to spend at least three days in a government-allocated hotel immediately after arriving, undergoing frequent health checks to ensure they are not positive for the virus. They are then permitted to travel to their home, where they must remain isolated for another four days and use an app to monitor their health.
Because of what many see as draconian rules, the number of foreigners arriving in Japan came to just 353,000 in the whole of 2021, down by 91.8% on 2019, when a record 31.187 foreign nationals came to Japan for business, pleasure or as students.
With little prospect of the government opening the border to foreign tourists in the near future, travel companies are redirecting their offerings to meet the needs of domestic travelers —who are likely to once more be staying close to home this summer.
The entry ban has not, however, stopped new variants of the virus getting in or infection figures rising. Health authorities in Tokyo reported 15,895 new cases in the city on Jan. 31, the highest figure to date for a Monday and up significantly from the 8,503 cases reported one week earlier. Similarly, a record 6,243 additional cases were reported in Osaka on Jan. 31.
On Jan. 29, a single-day record of 84,966 new infections were reported across the nation, with the Omicron variant the most common and a growing number of cases of the even more contagious BA.2 version of Omicron being identified. More than 300 cases of the BA.2 version have been confirmed so far, most in people who arrived in Japan from the Philippines or India.
Despite the rising figures, the government is resisting calls in some quarters for the reimposition of prefecture-wide states of emergency but has called on bars and restaurants to stop serving at 8 p.m. and to encourage customers to follow rules on hygiene and social distancing.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has also brought forward booster jabs, shortening the time between the second inoculation and the third dose of the vaccine to six months from seven months. The majority of healthcare workers, the elderly and those considered to be at elevated risk from the virus have already received a third dose and the government is aiming to replicate the success of last summer’s vaccination program, when more than 1 million people were receiving a shot every day. mbj