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Coronavirus

What You Need to Know as Japan Gradually Relaxes Border Restrictions

Expressing cautious optimism, Japan’s prime minister elucidated the need for “preparations towards the next phase.”

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UPDATED with additional relaxation of restrictions on March 3, 2022:
Prioritizing Students, Japan Increases Daily Immigration from 5,000 to 7,000

Japan increases entries to only 5,000 a day starting in March, covering mostly foreign workers and students. But the Prime Minister says preparations are underway for complete reopening. 

Japan is going to loosen border restrictions from March 2022, confirmed Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a press conference on Thursday, February 17. The changes pave the way for the phased entry of visa holders who are not yet residents, such as foreign students and workers.

This is the first significant relaxation in border measures since November 2021, when Kishida halted the barely-begun entry of some student and business visa-holders into Japan as the government attempted to navigate the vagaries of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When JAPAN Forward pressed Kishida on when tourists wanting to visit Japan would be allowed to enter, the Prime Minister did not give a timeline, but said that the government was going to consider the matter.  

Looking to the future, Kishida said the government would begin “preparations towards the next phase” of reopening. And, he added, while “keeping in mind COVID-19 restrictions, we are gradually starting to work towards an exit strategy from the sixth wave [of infections].”

Citing continuing concerns about the effects of the Omicron variant of coronavirus and its more contagious BA.2 strain, the Prime Minister called for continued caution.

Here’s what we know so far about the latest loosening of border controls.  

Will health protocols inside Japan be relaxed too?

In contrast to the loosened border measures, the Prime Minister announced an extension of the quasi-emergency measures until March 6 for 17 prefectures in Japan. 

The extension affects the operating hours of restaurants and other establishments serving alcohol, with details varying per region.

At the same time, five prefectures, including Okinawa, are set to have their emergency measures lifted on February 20.  

“This is still a situation with little margin for error. It’s difficult and uncertain, but I would like to see a gradual return to normality,” said Kishida, expressing some cautious optimism regarding infections nationwide. 

“I ask you to be a bit more patient,” he concluded. 

How many people will be allowed entry? 

The number of new entries allowed in the country will increase to 5,000 a day from 3,500. This change matches  the number of people who were let in before the border measures were tightened again in November 2021, at the beginning of the sixth wave.

What are the responsibilities of host companies, universities? 

For those allowed under the new measures, the host institutions or employing companies will bear responsibility for ensuring their compliance with quarantines and other rules. To come under this provision, the host institution or company will need to fill out an application online for each entrant through a website called ERFS. This will provide a simplified, streamlined way of handling applications, according to the Prime Minister. 

What are the changes in quarantine requirements?

In November 2021, a one or two-week quarantine applied to most returnees to Japan, regardless of nationality or vaccination status. 

Starting in March 2022, travelers from high-risk Omicron regions (North America, Europe, the United Kingdom, for a total of over 80 countries) can end their quarantine after three days if they have a negative result in a RT-PCR test on the third day of quarantine in a government designated facility. 

This is on top of the negative PCR tests necessary before boarding a plane to Japan and at the airport upon arrival.


Are boosted visitors required to quarantine?

Travelers from high-risk Omicron regions who have received the third dose of one of the COVID-19 vaccines approved in Japan will be allowed to go home (or to a hotel of their choice) where they must self-isolate for three days. 

Quarantine will be foregone altogether for passengers who are traveling from a country on the Japanese government’s “low-risk” list for COVID-19 infections, if the passenger is up-to-date with the third booster shot of the vaccine (New Zealand or Qatar, for example).

Who is covered by the new setup?

In principle, the new rules will affect newly entering foreigners “in all categories, except those for tourism purposes,” said Kishida on February 17.

According to Nihon Keizai Shimbun, there are about 400,000 people who have a visa but are waiting to enter Japan. The number was approximately 370,000 in October 2021, but has increased by 30,000 in the span of three months.

Students and technical trainees account for approximately 70% of the total of those currently holding visas but waiting for entry. Japan had allowed some 200 students into the country for a brief period in early January 2022. However, it prioritized those with government scholarships at the time.

The fact is that the number of people waiting to be let into Japan greatly exceeds the 5,000 people allowed to enter the country a day. That means the timeline for entry going forward continues to remain unclear.

Why did Japan wait until now to relax entries?

Prime Minister Kishida had previously stood by the strictest border measures among the Group of Seven countries (G7), helped along by widespread public support for the restrictions, according to several polls.

In the background was the exponential rise of Omicron cases in Japan, beginning in December 2021. Kishida himself admitted on February 17, “Until now we have had strict border measures to buy time, delay Omicron as much as possible, strengthen the medical system, and move the vaccine rollout along.”

On February 5, the country hit its highest daily infections since the start of the pandemic, with over 100,000 new daily infections reported. That is nearly four times as high as the previous peak, in August 2021.

There is also the delayed rollout of the booster vaccine. Kishida stressed on February 17 that the vaccination pace had reached “one million doses a day,” as of February 15. Starting February 14, a number of companies have also begun vaccinating their employees. 

Despite the increased pace, less than 12% of the population has received the third dose of the vaccine as of February 17. In comparison, 55% of the eligible population in the UK or Germany have received the booster, according to the Our World in Data.

What prompted the lifting of some restrictions?

Kishida is also juggling concerns about the Japanese economy. Japan announced on February 15 that GDP growth had bounced back 1.3% in the third quarter of 2021 (October to December) compared to the preceding quarter, or an annualized rate of 5.45%, bringing the economy’s growth back to pre-COVID levels.

However, business leaders have called for immigration measures to be relaxed or risk damaging the economy.

Deflecting from using the economy as a primary reason for the new measures, Kishida also cited border measures and infection situation in other countries as a basis for loosening immigration measures.

In Asia, Vietnam is set to fully reopen its border from mid-March, and Singapore is also aiming for relaxed border measures from the beginning of March.

As more countries return to normal, it’s to be expected that Japan will be under increasing pressure to follow suit, from businesses, education institutions, those in the entertainment and sport industries. 


Author: Arielle Busetto