2 Years of Quasi Shutting: Japan’s Love-Hate Relationship With the World Continues
On March 1st, 2022 Japan will finally re-allow entry of students and workers on its territory. Except during the complicated exception of last November, hundreds of thousands visa holders were left behind and in wait since the end of December 2020, sometimes in unbearable situations such as students and families whose stories were previously published:
However, true to the nationalistic tendencies reinforced by the recent Kishida Cabinet (in place since last October) and despite growing complaints from the academic institutions, the Keidanren (Japan’s business federation) and even from members of the ruling party (including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe!), there still are important obstacles to a complete reopening:
- The entry schedule following the CoE’s emission date has been canceled for a "first come first served" system, that will put universities and language school under a huge pressure.
- The quarantine has been reduced to 3 days, but the conditions to be totally exempted are only fulfilled by a handful of travelers (it is not really about the 3 vaccine shots, in fact Japan’s list of "high risk" countries still includes most of the countries in the world).
- The maximum daily entries in Japan was slightly raised from 3,500 to 5,000 travelers, a very low volume, especially as it includes Japanese overseas returnees (and they are the majority of travelers) a measure quickly criticized by the Keidanren.
- A few days before the easing date, the website for visa request is not online yet.
- If tourists were mentioned (shortly) for the first time, they are still a blind spot in the borders restrictions easing, without any official nor practical perspective.
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Many of the measures Japan has enforced are understandable on a protectionist viewpoint, however the archipelago’s shutdown strategy is increasingly less accepted and understood internationally.
🦠 An under-performing Covid crisis management
Until summer 2021, everything "was fine": Japan was among the diligent ones, with a contamination rate, and above all, a Covid-related death rate among the lowest in the world. Something our most faithful readers know as we wrote about each of the waves that broke on the archipelago:
In July 2021, however, the facade started to crumble: the 5th wave due to the Delta variant crippled the healthcare system and brought to light all the management structural flaws. First and foremost: many discovered that only ~7% of the Japanese hospitals were public and that the majority of private owned clinics refused Corona patients, with the consequence of an extremely fast saturation of the available beds. Not to mention the not so efficient (quasi) states of emergency periods.
The 6th wave, now due to the Omicron variant, engulfed Japan with new cases. The undersized testing system (its capacity is 8 times lower than France’s with an equal population) is so inefficient that the government decided to stop testing all patients who are not considered at risk. Does "no test" mean "no Corona"? Not exactly: in February, more than 300 Japanese are dying every day from the virus.
A quite sad record, and unfortunately probably an underestimation. Let's compare with the South-Korean neighbor: 60 % less inhabitants, up to 70 % more contamination than Japan, but the death rate is about 6 times less (a situation explained by the fact that about 60 % of the population in South Korea has received their booster dose, but only 15 % in Japan).
The vaccination roll-out is therefore another teeth-grinding issue. We said multiple times how its setting up was sluggish in Japan in 2021 first semester. The vaccination took up an acceptable pace after the Golden Week and finally reached 80% of the population by fall 🍁, however, there were no lesson learnt for the booster shot! The government made the same mistakes and did not protect properly the population in the midst of Omicron:
- People must generally wait 8 months between the 2nd and the 3rd doses,
- They must wait to receive their individual vaccination vouchers by postal mail,
- The vaccination booking by phone is anarchic and outdated,
- Vaccination centers were reopened late and suffer from a blatant under-staffing,
- Almost no inoculation made on weekends and holidays,
The majority of the population will only receive their booster dose by the end of 2022 first semester.
The New York Times recently published an article stating that Japan had successfully fought Covid, but the neutrality of its author, Hitoshi Oshitani, is questionable as he is indeed a medical expert advisor for the Japanese government...
Japan multiple times took political decisions that were not based on health grounds, but on a demagogic thinking and often uncalled for nationalistic pride.
🙅 Foreigners as the ideal scapegoat in an exacerbated xenophobic climate
At the end of November 2021, when the Japanese government slammed shut the borders (that had been briefly reopened to students a few days earlier) officially to prevent the spread of Omicron, it was already too late: the new variant was indeed already on the territory. In the meantime, two information emerged that made this decision appalling:
- A few weeks after the borders were closed again, it was revealed that the American military could come in and out as they pleased from their bases in Japan (with no mandatory vaccine, no test, no quarantine nor face mask…)
- At the end of January, while the Omicron cases were on a swift increase, Prime Minister Kishida could calmly state that the borders entry restrictions were "bearing fruit"…
A statement that says a lot about the Japanese Model’s sense of superiority and the subsequent false impression of safety: in a simplistic view the virus was merely due to the foreigners. Based on this assumption, in a December survey 88% of the population agreed on the closing of the borders, in contradiction with scientific facts from the WHO and the CDC explaining that such measures were useless. This survey has been reiterated since and is now closer to the 50/50 approval.
In Japan however, cliches are hard to die and the "inelegant" situations were plenty this winter:
- The mayor of Shizuoka explained about the city’s first Omicron case in late December that: "He [was] confirmed to have had contact with foreign nationals at work, and community transmission is unlikely."
- A foreign resident returning to Japan and isolating at a hotel had to turn every stone during 4 days to receive some medical care after her foot was severely burnt. Most of medical facilities rejected her as she came back from overseas, and despite having tested negative multiple times since her return.
- A Sri Lankan immigrant was hospitalized in Hyogo as his condition worsened due to the Coronavirus. However, his visa had expired and he was reported by the staff and put under arrest following his discharge.
- Early 2022, the Japanese Health Ministry was still counting the new Covid cases in overseas arrivals.
- A giant 400 cases cluster was found at Keio University at the occasion of "Seijin no Hi", the coming of age ceremony, but articles reporting it were quickly removed for the Japanese medias.
- Lastly, Dr Kasai, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, declared that the rise of Covid cases in some countries was due to their "lack of capacity due to their inferior culture, race and socioeconomic level."
We already featured an article about this underlying xenophobia at the end of 2020 after one year of living with the Coronavirus 🦠:
As a logical consequence of these measures, over the whole 2021 (during which were nonetheless staged the decried Olympic Games 🏅) Japan has admitted the lowest number of foreigners since… 1966 ! However, by 2040, the country will need 4 times more foreign workers than today.
🌏 The end of travel restrictions in most of the other countries
In the rise of the Omicron wave, the Japan National Tourism Organization released a new promotional video "Waiting to inspire [us]":
However, the contrast with reality is quite stern: the Japanese government frequently boasts its drastic borders restrictions measures as the strictest of the G7. However, they incur a strong international protest and are now totally against the flow of the global reopening:
- The European Union has reestablished free travel since June 2020 and even recently harmonized the travel conditions;
- Switzerland lifted all sanitary measures, including wearing a face mask;
- The United States have reopened to tourism since early November;
- Canada as well, with a further easing of the last remaining restrictions;
- Thailand does not require a quarantine anymore for tourists since February 1rst;
- Australia reopened to Working Holiday visas since February 21 and even refunds the visa application fees until April 19;
- Other Asian countries have or are on the verge of reopening to visitors such as: India, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam...
Even countries that had a "zero Covid" policy and opted for strict borders closures, announced the preparation for reopening:
- New-Zealand unveiled a reopening timeline, that will end with tourists in July at the latest;
- Taiwan is expecting a reopening by the 3rd quarter, starting by tourists groups.
Facing them, Japan therefore appears as one of the latest countries to stay closed to tourism, but for how long ? Other countries in such a situation are North Korea, Hong-Kong and China. After 2 years of mistreatment by Japan, our beloved Omotenashi seems far gone, even thought things are starting to get better.
Indeed, in addition to the international pressure, several hints show a progress in the right direction, starting by the quasi disappearance of the isolation period, a premise for a full reopening as a quarantine is incompatible with the entry of a large number of travelers. It is very likely that the long-awaited announcements will be made at the last minute, with a quick implementation. As of the time of writing, we expect the resuming of Japan inbound tourism from the end of summer, after the election of Japan’s Parliament’s upper house. Provided, naturally, that the health situation continues to improve and according to the resuming of the "GoTo Travel" domestic tourism subsidy campaign.
As we have been doing since the beginning of the crisis, we will inform of the latest evolution and announcements that will probably occur in the next weeks. In the meantime, our next article will discuss how the Japanese economy took a risky bet with this neo-sakoku that has gone far too long.