The Final Stretch to the Reopening of Japan
It took quite a long time, especially until May, but Japan did it: in mid-November 2021, Japan has become the most vaccinated country of the G7, with Canada and 79% of the population inoculated (the U.S.A. are slightly behind with less than 70%). It is certainly less than some other prominent countries such as Spain or Singapore, but Japan’s performance, although late, is commendable.
Less commendable is, however, the seemingly low motivation to reopen the borders of the country. The 5th wave of the summer was indeed dire, but now the numbers of confirmed Covid 🦠 cases in Japan only amounts to a dozen daily, and the country is voluntarily dragging the reopening of its territory to overseas visitors, even with visas that could even be considered more legitimate than a "simple" tourist visa.
A gradual reopening by visa types
Students, Business, Working Holiday and expatriates’ relatives
Since November 8, the following visas have been granted entry in Japan again: students, short-stay business visas (less than 3 months) and internships. Moreover, their holders can benefit from a shortened quarantine, reduced to only 3 days instead of 10.
This "attractive" communication is however more of a marketing argument, as reality is much more nuanced. Being granted one of such visas or just benefiting from the shortened quarantine requires Kafkian procedures involving up to 7 different ministries. This announcement had everybody pulling their hair out:
- Students, who have paid their school tuition for the semester or the year, and have been attending virtual classes for months in front of their computer, often late in the night due to the time difference.
- Schools, that must comply with strict procedures that are constantly updated (Sophia University even gave up recruiting overseas students due to the inconsistent timeline).
- Ministries for which the new paperwork is sometimes the source of misunderstanding since they had not the time to train their staff.
The height of absurdity is reached with the entry of students, that relies on the obtention of the "Certificate of Eligibility", is in fact staged from November 2021 and February 2022 according to the issuing date of the CoE. Unsurprisingly, for most of them, the entrance would more likely take place in February rather than in November. And they still have to pay from about ¥100 to 200,000 (~US$886 to ~US$1,772) for quarantine expenses, including costs such as accommodation in a hotel 🏨, PCR tests, etc. As for the reduced quarantine, it is more of a bait than a true liberation (going to the restaurant, attend meetings or taking the train 🚅 without seat reservation, etc. is not allowed).
Let us remind that Japan is the only G7 country still refusing entry to students on its territory.
In a surprising move, the reopening to Working Holiday visas was announced on Saturday 20 November, however in a limited version: applicants must be sponsored by a company that also acts as a guarantor to be able to request the visa. A total nonsense for this type of visa whose primary use is for travel and not for settling in a place to work. Lastly, on the same day, it was announced that relatives of foreign residents in Japan could apply for a visa at their local Embassy of Japan. It mainly targets divorced parents, grandparents or expatriate siblings. Yet, the request must be based on humanitarian grounds (for example: depression due to the length of separation) and the application dossier must include the latest tax assessment notice, recent bank statements or an employer statement…
As for long-term working visas, nothing has been announced yet.
If the archipelago can indeed boast the reopening of borders to visas holders under the pressure of schools and the Keidanren (Japanese Business Federation), it was nonetheless made with reluctance and at the lowest capacity. As proof that major inbound travels are not expected despite these announcements: the daily number of entries on the Japanese territory was raised to 5,000 instead of 3,500. And as Europe, among others, is experiencing the winter upticks of Covid, the Japanese government announced in the first lines of its statement that the country might be closed again if a new variant of the virus appeared. Countries where cases numbers are swelling are also those where the population is the most covered by vaccines and, fortunately, until now, hospitals are avoiding congestion, the biggest fear of Japan after the recent 5th wave.
In response to the Japanese government specious announcements, 7 of the biggest Chambers of Commerce in Japan (United States, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, and Europe) have published a joint statement to urge Japan to simplify entry procedures and speed up the reopening. Although this message is unlikely to move Japanese authorities, it will certainly help them starting to realize that they are hurting the country’s image in the world. Until then, getting a visa from Japan’s administration is close to requesting a "permit A38" at the "place that sends you mad".
On November 8, whereas the archipelago just started to accept a few visas, everybody noticed that the United Stated had reopened their borders to vaccinated tourists. Regarding Japan, the perspectives are not so clear!
As soon as early autumn 🍁, we learned from insider’s sources that reopening to foreign tourists would start from January 2022. We therefore shared the good news to our subscribers but some of them (mainly on Facebook and Twitter) have accused us of spreading false information. Let us be clear: it was no rumor. We have no interest in stirring up our readers’ hopes to crush them immediately after. The misunderstanding originates partly from the frustration of travelers stuck outside Japan, and more importantly from the unfamiliarity with the Japanese point of view, that we will explain below.
In early November, the Japanese government mentioned overseas tourists and that it "plan[ned] to conduct a study into monitoring tourists from abroad in preparation for easing Japan's border controls". Western tourists understand they will be at the foot of Tokyo Tower 🗼 in early 2022. However, the Japanese, who do not think the same way, are more cautious and prefer a long reflection before taking a decision. Therefore, travels that are expected to be allowed sometimes around the year end period should be travel agencies’ organized group travels. More precisely, these trips will be very limited and closely supervised and are designed as a test (only organized tours, no free time aside sightseeing, etc.) on which will be based the general tourists reopening timeline.
Moreover, domestic tourism is still very powerful in Japan. The GoTo Travel, a subsidy campaign for trips within Japan lasted several months in 2020 and its resuming was tentatively scheduled in fall 2021, a timeline that seemed somewhat consitent as it was coinciding with the drop of cases numbers and above all the long-awaited end of the long-winded state of emergency. However, a few days ago, it was announced that the second GoTo Travel campaign would take place from January/February to May 2022 (with a colossal budget that will further deepen the already abyssal national debt…). From an outsider point of view, the Japanese government’s decisions may seem lacking in logic, however it can be supposed that the large scale "individual" (and unsupervised) tourism will take place after the end of the GoTo Travel campaign. As additional hints of future developments, some regional JR passes (Kansai Wide, Kyushu and Hokkaido) are temporarily accessible to Japanese residents until March 2022, whereas they were normally solely aimed at overseas visitors.
Another sign of the changing times, lastly: the local tourism associations who almost stopped actions for about a year seem to revive and prepare the comeback of foreign tourists. We are contacted again, and new press tours are organized for Kanpai, in short, the recovery is on its way.
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How to "make the most" of the situation
Let’s say it again: it is still time to book your trip and benefit from the last good deals! From now on, prices will only increase, and this upward trend is only at its beginning. All operators (airlines, hotels, travel agencies, etc.) are now used to cancellation procedures without additional cost and postponements; if not, it is always possible to choose any other provider.
Many of you are on the optimist side and have booked a travel for spring 🌸 2022. You may be proven right and will possibly be among the first travelers to set a foot in Japan again, enjoying visits with very few tourists and at unbeatable prices!
If you want to minimize the risks, you may consider booking for summer or autumn 2022.
Lastly, if you are more on the pessimistic side or very cautious, just wait for an official announcement of the borders reopening. Then you will be assured of your reservations, but the drawback might be you will be part of crowds of tourists.
It is not easy to plan for a future trip when the borders are still closed to tourism, but the trip is very likely to be a lot more expensive later, and therefore will have to be shorter and / or with less options at reservation.
Moreover, don’t expect prices to drop in the next years! Japan is among the most sought-after destinations (and sometimes the most requested in the world) in the perspective of the return of tourism after Covid. Most of tourists will quickly forget the slow and complicated reopening and many will even not have heard about it. Most of travelers, especially those who are used to and enjoy long-haul travels, could spare a lot during the many lock-downs and curfews that occurred since March 2020; traveling in their own or neighboring countries has certainly not quenched their thirst for exoticism. On the other hand, Japan has maintained its goal of receiving 60 million tourists in 2030 (twice the number of 2019, that already was a record-breaking year), and prices will certainly not decrease in the future…
As for now, we can only wait for the announcement of a more precise timeline by the beginning of 2022, that will soon arrive. Tourists should not expect a mandatory quarantine upon arrival, but at least a proof of a complete vaccination as well as negative PCR tests to provide before flying and probably upon landing. As many other countries, Japan will probably not reopen without such counterpart measures.