What is Preventing the Reopening of Japanese Borders Before the End of 2021
Except for residents in Japan, the frustration is real as the Japanese borders are still closed to tourists one year and a half after the beginning of the Covid-related restrictions. When not a famous DJ or a spouse of a Japanese national (with some efforts and patience), setting a foot in Japan is still but a fantasy.
However, now that the touchy Olympic Games 🏅 are over, the next months’ horizon seems to brighten (at last) as the vaccination rollout has caught up after the initial delay and the objective of 60 million tourists in 2030 has been reasserted. Let’s assess what is yet to overcome before the long-awaited reopening of Japanese borders in the next future…
💉 The end of the vaccination campaign
Japan started its vaccination campaign in early 2021 with an astounding delay: about 2 months later than the other developed countries, and at a critical moment in the epidemic’s winter surge. Taro Kono, then Minister in charge of overseeing Covid-19 vaccination, had since explained this incredible slippage: although Pfizer did include 100 Japanese subjects in their U.S. tests, the Japanese Ministry of Health decided to perform their own tests from scratch in Japan, on the assumption that the differences in diet might impact the results.
Fortunately, a cruising speed of more than one million new daily inoculations was reached at the end of the Golden Week, and despite ludicrous slowdowns during holidays, Japan is finally closing the gap and should catch up the European countries’ high vaccination rates in October and reach the "herd immunity" (namely 80 % of the population vaccinated) by November.
Thanks to our Japan’s herd immunity date calculator, it is even possible to confirm vaccination progresses in real time:
If vaccination does not fully prevent contamination, it does help reducing it, and figures show that it efficiently protects from severe cases. The last big waves (4th in France / 5th in Japan) have proven that the dreaded overwhelming of hospitals was greatly alleviated by both countries vaccinal coverage. Thus, in August, 80% of Covid-related deaths in Japan were of non-vaccinated patients. This trend should be confirmed after the 3rd dose inoculation at least 8 months after the 2nd jab, which will apply to health-care staff at the end of the year, and elderly from early 2022.
As for countries that chose to enforce a "zero Covid" policy (such as Australia), the current closing of borders is quite logical. However, Australia, where the vaccination campaign was launched even later than Japan, announced a likely reopening in December (see below). The archipelago is virtually closed too but the sudden uptick it suffered this summer does not compare to the low figures the country was used to.
So what is the point in staying closed once the vaccination coverage is well advanced? The reasoning goes beyond the vaccination campaign.
🦠 The New Covid variants
The Delta variant put Japan under pression last summer, with a short but very intense peak, one that the archipelago never went through before.
While vaccination is certainly holding back the Delta variant, the possible new variants recently discovered in Japan, with a higher virulence, are a real concern for winter 2021-2022:
- The new Delta, a variant of the variant,
- Mu, imported from Colombia and more resistant to vaccination,
- Lambda, introduced from Peru before the Olympics,
- Eta and Kappa, monitored by the WHO, and,
In view of an endemic development of Covid, it is now almost certain that vaccination against the Coronavirus 🦠 will follow the same pattern as the flu’s: targeting the elderly and / or the most fragile and inoculated yearly with the most recent and virulent strains. In the meantime, political authorities carefully monitor each development that could make contamination suddenly increase.
🗳 The Lower House elections in fall
A major domestic politics topic, quite logically unknown with very few insights provided outside Japan, the national elections are staged this autumn 🍁 and they play a major role in the fact that borders are still closed. Since late August indeed, the country has been in the process of renewing its government in the wake of its deplorable interim Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’ s surprise resignation. Let’s have a look on the situation.
4 candidates have competed in the presidential election of the ruling party (LDP, conservative) whose elected president is usually eligible for the Prime Minister position:
- Taro Kono (58 y. o.) from Kanagawa, former Minister overseeing vaccination and the front-runner of the election, studied in Georgetown University (Washington D.C.) and consequently English bilingual, low-key progressive, popular on Twitter and very active on the SNS.
- Seiko Noda (61 y.o.) from Gifu, the LDP executive acting secretary-general but not affiliated to any faction and not much followed, rather progressive.
- Sanae Takaichi (60 y.o.) from Nara, former Minister for internal affairs and communication, with very conservative, almost extremist views, supported by Shinzo Abe.
- Fumio Kishida (64 y.o.) from Hiroshima, also a former Minister of Abe’s Cabinet and a moderate liberal, supported by the party but not much by the general population. He was eventually elected in the second round as he benefited from internal support, as he is considered the most tractable!
Obviously, with the LDP’s nationalistic electoral base nostalgic of the isolationist Sakoku period and the current political issues, the reopening of borders to foreign tourists is far from being of concern in the electoral campaign, when business or students’ visas are not even on the table...Within the electoral context, debates naturally focus on domestic issues:
- Fighting Covid of course, with, among other things, a law project to make lock-downs possible (Japan always ahead of its time!).
- The economic revival (slower in the archipelago in comparison to western countries) and a possible new raise of VAT, and,
- Foreign policy topics, mainly regarding China and the 2 Koreas, Japan’s best enemies.
On September 25th however, during a debate for the LDP party leadership election, the issue of closed borders was brought up under the view of reviving the regional economies: Kono said that Japan should promote international tourism and especially attract wealthy visitors, whereas Takaichi and Noda stressed on the importance of Japanese pop culture (especially anime and movies) as a great appeal to foreign tourists. As for Kishida, he only promised to relaunch the domestic subsidy GoTo Travel campaign with the addition of a health passport. With Kishida, the country’s policy overall is unlikely to change, as he already stated for example that he was not in favor of same sex marriage or that a married couple should share the same surname.
However, the LDP must stay vigilant: even if, as the majority party, it is assured to stay in the ruling position, thanks to the number of seats in the parliament it already holds and an alliance with the Komeito party, it was challenged many times this year (and especially encountered a major setback in August in Yokohama that certainly led to or at least sped up Suga’s resignation). The government thus acknowledged the need to start a slow modernization of its ways to keep up with the evolution of society, starting by the implementation of a health passport to get rid of the semi-permanent yet useless state of emergency.
Details of the timeline are as follows:
- Finalization of the LDP leadership race on Wednesday 29 September by an internal vote (the winner Fumio Kishida would become the 100th Prime Minister 5 days later).
- Extraordinary Diet session on Monday 04 October to ratify the decision (of the 21 members of the new Cabinet, 14 are members of the Nippon Kaigi far-right faction, only 3 are women and the average age is 62 years old).
- Dissolution of the Lower House on Thursday 14 October.
- National Lower House elections, probably on Sunday 31 October (the campaign starting 2 weeks before) and at the latest on November 28, but such a delayed date would make the vote for 2022 budget difficult.
It is thus unrealistic to hope that the Japanese government will take a decision regarding the reopening to foreign tourists any earlier than this timeline.
🌎 Other re-openings in the world
The archipelago is not, of course, the only country to refuse foreign travelers on its territory. Except for Schengen Europa (reopened for constitutional reasons since the end of the first lock-down) and Dubai (Instagramers’ HQ), very few destinations have widely opened to foreign tourists without restrictions.
Even areas that were very dependent of tourism activity, such as Maghreb, had no other choice than to resort detrimental "stop and go" measures. As for Thailand’s tentative reopening this summer, the entry conditions were so complicated that many travelers gave up going there. South Korea did open to all visitors in early September, but a strict 14-days quarantine was required: short travels or holidays thus became not practicable. Lastly, from October 1rst, Chile will implement relaxed conditions: a 5-days isolation and daily reports (on health condition and localization) by e-mails during 14 days.
The first step forward was made by Canada that reopened its borders in 2 steps, first to the United States on August 9, then to the rest of the world on September 7. The only conditions required to enter: be fully vaccinated and have a negative PCR test made less than 72 hours before arriving on the territory. Requirements to which all post-Covid travelers can easily comply. As for Australia, that we mentioned earlier, it is on the same path, and will probably be joined by the neighboring New-Zealand in the beginning of next year.
However, let’s face the fact that the pace of resuming international traffic will likely be set by the United States. However, the vaccination campaign, despite a revving start, has been stalling since spring 🌸 due to the absence of a nation-wide agreement and Joe Biden had recently to decide on a mandatory vaccination for federal agents and workers of companies with more than 100 employees to boost the vaccination rate.
When the U.S. will decide on welcoming a large number of travelers (starting by the Europeans in November) again, their diplomatic strength should sustain a sped up global reopening.
🛂 Authorized visas
While most visitors in Japan are short-term tourists (Japan is not a replaceable destination as could be any seaside destination), one must keep in mind they will be the last to be re-admitted by the Japanese reopening strategy. There won’t be a several years long wait, but they will be only welcomed after other visa holders (those who had been granted access to Japan in the short span of September to December 2020):
- Business travelers,
- Students (Japan is the only G7 country where they are still barred from entry),
- Working-Holiday visas.
As a sign of hope appeared as soon as the day after the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games, when the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) officially requested the government to allow vaccinated visitors without the 14-days quarantine. As a good will signal, the government announced the reciprocity of vaccine passports starting from December, with the acknowledgment of the European health pass (among others). Until then, every new visitor must complete a 14-days quarantine, shortened to 10 days for some specific cases...
Thanks to their limited number, the handling of visa holders is a real-life test for the Japanese government before a larger reopening to tourists, despite being detrimental to Japan’s image in the world.
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So dear readers, be patient: Japan’s re-opening to international tourism has never been this close! It is expected, most likely, in the beginning of 2022.
The economical stakes are high, for the Keidanren naturally, but especially for the tourism industry, and even for Kyoto, as the city is on the verge of bankruptcy…
As long as no official announcement is made, prices (especially for flights ✈️ and accommodations) are still attractive, but there is not doubt they will balloon when the Japanese government will submit a reopening timeline, given that Japan is more than ever the dream travel destination.