Omicron: Japan's Doors Slammed Shut Again in December 2021
Travel to Japan was on the verge of resuming in November 2021, starting with students and business travelers allowed to request entry permission on the territory, but optimism was quickly dampened. The last time students and short-term business travelers – whose readmission is preliminary to reopening to tourism – could request visas was from September to December 2020, but this time, the visa issuing period lasted only but 2 weeks: precisely from November 8 to 28.
Let’s have a look – again – on the never-ending Covid 🦠 roller-coaster.
🛂 The absurd new border shutdown
A few weeks only after his election as Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida wanted to strike hard and distance himself from his predecessor, interim Prime Minister Suga, who has been harshly criticized for his lagging and too shallow decision making.
Only a few days after the news of the Omicron variant appeared in the medias, Kishida therefore took the opposite stance and went for the fastest and most radical decision: he announced the closure of Japan, even more tightly than in spring 🌸 2020. It became indeed impossible to book a Japan-bound flight ✈️ in December and at least for one month. Whereas Christmas is not as important a holiday as it is for Christian tradition countries, the New Year is still a particularly important event for the Japanese people.
With Kishida’s decision, even Japanese returnees were barred from entering in Japan, which was anti-constitutional. The measure was so harshly criticized (including by the WHO) that it was eventually withdrawn in a hurry after 24 hours, which ridiculed Kishida’s hasty and too demonstrative decision.
The worse was avoided, but unfortunately the tone was set for the weeks to come, at least. This wall-up policy (including the suspension of new students and business visas’ issuance, that had just been re-allowed 17 days earlier) is indeed not completely motivated by healthcare concerns, but involves symbolic and purely political aspects. Let us remind that the Japanese government has been very nationalistic for years, to the point its political views could be considered far-right and extremely conservative in other countries. And there is a reason: it pleases its old electorate who agrees at a large majority with such measures and it is good for the government’s popularity polls.
It is a well-known fact: the virus was brought
by foreigners from overseas, and even though the current studies (including Japanese ones) find that Omicron is indeed more transmissible but probably less virulent than Delta, the new variant is the new perfect excuse to continue this unfortunate ersatz of a modern Sakoku.
Practical consequences quickly happened at the airports, starting by the new version of the 'written pledge'. After only a few days, the waiting time to have a PCR test upon arrival in Japan could be as long as 8 hours after landing. As for the hotels 🏨 near Narita, they are all full of travelers quarantining due to the new measures, to the point that new arrivals were redirected to Chubu airport. And as overwhelming is near in Nagoya as well, travelers can be sent down to Fukuoka to comply with their self-isolation period.
🦠 The sanitary situation in Japan, before the 6th wave
If the argument of health safety is used by the Japanese government when the health system is under pressure, it is also convenient when the situation is under control:
- There have been only a hundred of new daily cases for a few weeks, with a number of tests as low as ever.
- After an initially slow rollout, the Japanese population is now highly vaccinated, with about 80% of the residents who received at least the first jab (which is more easily achieved when the under 12-years-old do not represent a large part of the population).
The archipelago is therefore currently among the "honor students" in the world and does not hesitate to point at its best enemy South Korea. However, experience taught us that decrease follows increase, and increase follows decrease. In health like in finance, the situation is often a cycle and even if some studies found that genetic factors may have soften Covid’s impact in Japan, a slight increase in December’s caseloads is already noticeable. Japan is thus preparing for a likely 6th wave in the next weeks or months, and decided to raise the number of hospital beds by 30%. It must be said that last summer’s 5th wave was particularly violent and left traces in the collective mind.
We only wish Japan would not have to face a new uptick of the virus, but from experience, one must be very prudent on this matter. Amid a lull in the health crisis, people tend to relax the anti-Covid measures even in the archipelago, which is, additionally, entering the time of traditional companies’ parties at the end and at the beginning of the year (bonenkai and shinnenkai), even though they are less numerous than before.
Moreover and despite harsh autarkical measures, Japan was among the first countries to declare almost each new notable variant of the Covid:
- The initial strain in early 2020, with the painful story of the Diamond Princess,
- The Delta variant in early 2021, brought by a Japanese pilot back from Gaikoku; then,
- Omicron, first by a foreign diplomat back from Namibia in November, then quickly by a Japanese returning from Italy. Afterward, the case number grew by mid-December, including one that passed unnoticed the quarantine inspection.
We are a step closer to think that closing borders and other such measures against immigration are useless.
👨🎓 Students are particularly impacted
In November, when visa application was reopened to international students, we already explained the obstacle course if not the joke (not to say contempt) that was the timeline admission on the Japanese territory.
As a result of such absurd and restrictive procedure, during the short 17-days opening, the Japanese administration only examined 104 applications, including… 17 new long-term visas (for stays longer than 3 months), namely (an incredible) 1 per day. What a reopening ! In July nearly 100,000 persons entered in Japan for the scorned Olympic Games 🏅, yet the government lowered the number of daily travelers again from 5,000 to 3,500.
Consequently, bitterness toward Japan is growing among international students who had prepared moving out to the other side of the world, stopped their lives in their home country (sold their furniture, left their apartment…) and payed for Japanese school tuition just to be attending online courses in the night from 1 a.m. to 5 p.m. due to the time difference. Some of them have waited for one year, and when they thought they would finally be allowed in Japan even though not be before February 2022, they were greatly disappointed by this sudden back-pedaling.
As a finishing blow, in an incredibly bad timing, it was announced that foreign students, when they will eventually be re-admitted in Japan, will not be entitled to the duty-free anymore. Meanwhile, Japanese language schools are preparing to cancel April 2022 school year.
The government is laying low, except for Kono Taro, former Vaccination minister and challenger in the recent Prime Minister election, who urged the government on December 10 to let Covid-negative international students enter in Japan. The MEXT (Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology), is trying to soothe the situation, but to no avail:
International students are not the only category affected, and if tourists will logically be the last to be considered, at the moment, the current measures are greatly impacting people on a larger scale, for example families who can not reunite, such as the example of this research scientist, expatriate in Japan and who cannot have her three children back with her.
On a broader context, expatriates (foreign nationals living in Japan) are increasingly feeling ensnared in the archipelago due to flickery measures, sometimes extremes, without preliminary notice, and often confining to xenophobia. How many of them had to forgo their year end holidays in their country of origin in fear of an unexpected closure? As we already explained, the international image of Japan is not getting better.
✈️ Japan’s reopening prospects in 2022
The rational reopening timeline is expected to be the following:
- Students and trainees,
- Short-term (less than 3 months) business travelers, followed by long-term business visas,
- Working holiday visas; and,
- Lastly, tourists.
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In addition, the domestic travel subsidy campaign GoTo Travel is expected to resume from late January to May 2022, and will certainly impact our tentative timeline.
The advent of the Omicron variant unfortunately dampened the timeline we estimated this autumn 🍁, when we were very optimistic that it would be effective for tourists from spring 2022. To be fair with the Japanese government, it did announced (quite dryly) that reopening would be questioned in case of a new variant, which indeed quickly happened.
From the first studies, including by Japanese experts, a 3rd dose of the Pfizer vaccine (and probably of other mRNA vaccine types) seems to offer protection against Omicron. So it is probably safe to contemplate the idea of Japan reopening more largely after the booster shot will be administered to the largest number of people possible, that is to say, starting from summer 2022. It is likely that in the meantime, tourist visas will be authorized again.
In the rest of the world, the reaction was not as extreme as Japan’s:
- Most countries have first only limited flights from southern Africa, where the Omicron variant was supposed to originate,
- The United States have shortened PCR tests’ validity period before landing (from 72 hours to 24 hours), then raised again alert levels regarding some countries (France for example was returned to 4/4).
- New Zealand, after nearly 2 years of a "zero Covid" policy and a 9-months record breaking lock-down, announced the reopening to tourist from April 30.
In the hit manga One Piece, that just passed at the same time its 100th volume and 1000th animated episode, Oden, the legitimate shogun of Wano Country (Eiichiro Oda’s fantasy Japan) wanted to reconnect his country to the world. Will Prime Minister Kishida act as our real world’s Kaidou, the one who prevents reopening?