Three months after closing its borders again to foreign visa holders amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan has begun easing restrictions on foreign students, technical interns and short-term business travelers. The government will increase the limit for new arrivals from the current 5,000 to 7,000 each day and increase that figure to 10,000 from April 1. It is believed that most foreign students waiting to enter Japan – some 400,000 in total – will be able to do so by the end of May, provided the host organization submits an online application and carries out a visa check.
New arrivals who test negative on the third day of quarantine will not have to self-quarantine for seven days at a designated facility. Those who received their third dose of the vaccine and entered Japan from an area with no COVID-19 outbreak will be exempt from mandatory quarantine.
Japan has seen a resurgence in COVID-19 cases across the country, due to the highly contagious variant of Omicron. The current sixth wave, which began earlier this year, has led 18 prefectures, including Tokyo, Osaka and Aichi, to impose a near-state of emergency on January 19. If there are signs that infections are starting to drop, the emergence of a new Omicron subvariant could slow the country’s already cautious reopening plans.
Despite a global trend of easing entry restrictions amid advances in vaccination, the emergence of Omicron has prompted the Japanese government to tighten already stringent border measures. On November 29, the border was suddenly closed to non-Japanese only three weeks after border controls were relaxed. At the time, the government explained that entry restrictions would be indefinite until “more is known about the variant”.
Kishida’s administration adopted the aggressive border approach to COVID-19 of the previous two governments, which blocked tourists from entering the country for more than two years and limited re-entry to foreign residents of specific countries.
Japan’s inconsistent entry ban on foreigners has been criticized as a double standard, unscientific and xenophobic. In early January, the government was proud to contain the nationwide spread of COVID-19 through entry restrictions. Despite initial public support for the most recent entry ban, after Omicron became the dominant strain in late January, the government failed to justify maintaining border restrictions.
Foreign students and language schools in Japan are fed up and have been disappointed time and time again. During the Tokyo Summer Olympics, held amid a deadly outbreak caused by the Delta variant, some students criticized the level of preparation made to accept some 11,000 athletes from around the world and the lack of response foreign students.
In recent months, the government has been reluctant to give a timetable for easing border restrictions, asking for patience instead. But in mid-February, members of the ruling party’s education division urged the government to prioritize foreign students, warning that Japan could be left out of the global race for talent.
Prime Minister Kishida Fumio is focusing on easing border restrictions “in stages” in “considering the infection situation inside and outside the country”. It’s unclear how long the border will be open this time around, as health experts in Japan are warning of a possible increase in cases of the BA2 subvariant, commonly known as “Stealth Omicron.” Last week in Tokyo, 12.3% of positive cases turned out to be BA2. It is feared that this will prolong the sixth wave.
In an unexpected change of attitude, on March 3, Kishida held a press conference where he hailed foreign students as a “national treasure” who will play a role in Japan’s future. Last week, the government announced that a cash payout of 100,000 yen ($850) to foreign students experiencing financial hardship related to the coronavirus would arrive by the end of the month. Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu said accepting foreign students is “extremely important for improving our country’s educational and research capabilities and establishing friendly relations with various nations.”
Japan’s biggest business lobby, the Keidanren, has issued a proposal urging the government to abolish entry restrictions entirely and treat COVID-19 as an epidemic rather than a pandemic in light of vaccine availability and antiviral treatments. This is the fifth time that the Keidanren has submitted proposals regarding exit strategies for a post-coronavirus transition. At a press conference on March 7, the group’s chairman expressed concern that entry restrictions are damaging the country’s reputation.
Japan’s COVID-19 policy has been criticized by the German Chamber of Commerce, which said German companies operating in Japan had lost 13 billion yen ($130 million) due to the inability of staff to enter Japan. The US Chamber of Commerce also said the border restrictions raise serious questions about whether Japan is a reliable long-term partner for foreign businesses.
The government plans to lift the quasi-state of emergency when it expires on March 21. But at this stage, there are no plans to allow tourists to enter Japan.