Covid-19: When and How to Travel in Japan with looming Coronavirus in 2021 and 2022
The Coronavirus 🦠 outbreak really surprised the world since early 2020. In the span of a couple of weeks, the virus first considered a "simple flu" only spreading in China (then on the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Yokohama) developed in a global pandemic, the biggest to happen in modern times, with dramatic figures as of autumn 🍁 2021:
- More than 220 million of confirmed-cases (not including asymptomatic, not-tested patients, and false-negatives),
- Nearly 4,6 million deaths (not including non-tested victims, procedures varying from country to country, and long Covid cases).
As a comparison, malaria killed about 400,000; AIDS 690,000, tuberculosis 1,5 million, and as for Spanish flu estimates vary from 20 to 100 million deaths.
Most of the severely sick patients were the elderly (and the others had co-morbidity risk factors such as overweight, diabetes, high blood pressure or respiratory failure). Many governments nonetheless decided to close their countries' borders, thus stopping all economic activity and travels. Therefore, global tourism came to a sudden halt in March 2020, and at the same time, the opportunity to go to Japan.
This article sums up the elements and events that could prevent a travel to Japan. It will be updated as new information become available.
✅ Lockdowns in North America and Western Europe
🛂 Europe’s external borders are open; Japan is classified as a green country from which entry is authorized, it is currently possible to travel overseas. The U.S. and Canada recommend avoiding overseas travels, but accept visitors from Japan upon proof of vaccination, negative PCR-test, or Covid-recovery document.
North America and Western Europe were hit hard by the Covid-19 outbreak in terms of death toll and economic consequences. From March 2020 and to prevent the further spreading of the virus, all areas decided on lockdown measures that were diversely enforced, such as:
- Stay-at-home recommendations or orders,
- Closure of schools and / or non-essential businesses,
- Ban on non-essential travels (both domestic and international),
- Borders closures and quarantine measures.
Naturally, traveling to Japan was not an option.
Most of the countries started to reopen in spring 2020 but had to deal with new partial or total lockdowns, curfews and various measures to face the virus and its variants’ progression ever since. The Schengen area, for example, was closed until early July 2020 to:
- Adjust to the various reopening schedules of the different countries,
- Respond to Covid-19 surges in the US, and other countries such as Brazil or India,
- Possibly help intra-European tourism and local economies during summer holidays.
To date, the European Union has labeled Japan a safe country and therefore authorizes travels to the archipelago, while the United States and Canada recommend avoiding travels to Japan if possible.
To make international travel easier, vaccine or health passports are being developed with smartphone 📱 apps to be used in complementary with PCR tests, vaccine certificates or Covid-recovery proof.
In any case and due to the variability of the Covid-related situations in the world, make sure to always check the traveling requirements directly with the local authorities, as some may change without notice.
✅ Suspension of flight connections
✈️ Flights operations to Japan gradually resumed from June 2020.
Because of stay-at-home recommendations, lockdowns and the closing of Schengen area, airlines have cut most of their flight connections both domestically and internationally (up to 80% of the global air traffic).
Except for repatriation operations and sanitary supply, there was no essential reason to travel by plane ✈️ at that time. Airlines thus waited for travelers to be authorized to travel again to resume their flight activity, with daily flights and especially international flights.
For example, Japan Airlines resumed the Paris-Tokyo connection on 2020 July 1, with 2 weekly rotations. All Nippon Airways, resumed operations the next month, with the same frequency as its counterpart. And they have continued to increase the number of flights ever since.
Flight schedules vary according to the type of visas authorized to travel, but all airlines wise, there is about one direct flight per day on the France-Japan route for example.
As for safety measures, airports have implemented body temperature screening with thermic cameras 📷, for passengers about to board. Mandatory wearing of face mask in the planes and in the airports has been implemented since spring 2020.
In fall 2020, quick antigenic test providing results in about 15 to 30 minutes were implemented in airports, and available both upon departure and arrival.
In Japan, testing centers were built during summer near the airports. They were ready in November 2020 to perform 20,000 PCR test per day in Tokyo-Narita, Haneda and Osaka-Kansai airports. In Narita, the test price amounted to ¥39,800 (~US$350.50) or ¥46,500 (~US$409.50) without appointment.
A health questionnaire to screen Covid-19 symptoms, given by flight attendants during the flight, will be available on line in the near future.
❌✅ Closing of Japan’s borders
🗾 Gradual reopening of Japan’s borders since September 2020: first to foreign residents, long-stay visas (working-visa, student, working holiday…), then tourists depending on their country of origin.
At the end of March 2020, as a preventive measure against the Coronavirus outbreak on its own territory, the Japanese government announced the closing of its borders until further notice. It concerned any traveler who stayed in a country whose list has included up to 159 countries (including France, Belgium, Switzerland, etc.) in the last 14 days before arrival. This measure also affected every foreign national in Japan with a working visa or any visa (even with permanent resident or Japanese national’s spouse status!) who were not allowed to come back in the archipelago even if they initially left for a short period.
The situation improved from 2020, September 1, for residents originating from countries in a list that gradually lengthened. From October 1, Japanese borders were open to all the countries in the world, for all kinds of visa (of at least 3-months length: students, work, cultural visa, new expatriates), with the exception of tourist visa. Daily arrival quotas were implemented and a negative PCR test + 14-day self-quarantine upon arrival were required. Working-holidays visas were authorized from 2020, October 27.
On 2020, December 26, following the introduction of the Covid-19 UK variant by 7 Japanese nationals coming back from the United Kingdom (the first one was a pilot who was not tested upon arrival on the territory), Japan decided to close the borders to all non-resident foreigners. Despite the end of all states of emergency, to this day, it is still impossible to go to Japan for business or studying. The situation is however expected to evolve favorably with the introduction of a vaccine passport (as a paper document first during summer, then on a smartphone app like in Europe starting in December).
Regarding foreign residents, since mid-March 2021 and for 24 countries including France, Belgium and Switzerland, the 14-days self-quarantine is preceded by a 3-days stay in one of the airport’s hotels, designated by the Japanese government. The travel back home can only be made by private transportation means (such as personal car 🚙 or "corona taxi" equipped with plastic protections) or in a specific carriage of the Keisei Skyliner at Narita ("Keisei Smart Access / Premium"), but not with the other public transportation means (trains 🚅, subways 🚇, etc.).
Starting 2021, October 1, the 3-days quarantine in a hotel 🏨 is not required anymore, and the self-isolation at home is shortened to 10 days (instead of 14) for these visa holders, with a PCR test at the end of the period (list of the authorized Covid-testing centers).
❌ Suspension of temporary (tourist) visa to Japan
📋 Resuming expected: from late 2021 / early 2022, for vaccinated travelers but without mandatory quarantine.
Traveling to Japan has been easy and convenient for years thanks to the visa waiver program. With this arrangement, most of North America and Europe's citizens were only required to hold a valid passport to enter and stay in Japan up to 90 consecutive days for tourism, without any other requirement. Since the end of March 2020 however, the visa waiver program was suspended, and it is not possible to go to Japan under the previous agreements between Japan and foreign countries.
Want to know when Japan will reopen its borders? Subscribe to Kanpai’s Newsletter and get information on real time:
Due to the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Covid waves, the new variants and a delayed vaccination schedule (see below), the opening to tourists was delayed in regard of the primary schedule.
March brought disappointment regarding summer 2021: announcement was made that even travelers with tickets for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (about 1 million tickets were sold overseas) will not be allowed in Japan to attend the sport events.
At the moment, the most likely timeline for Japan’s reopening to tourism is expected at best from late 2021 / early 2022, when Western developed countries and obviously Japan will have reached the herd immunity thanks to vaccination.
New entry requirements should be announced in autumn 2021.
After the borders’ reopening prospective tourists will probably have to deal with:
- A completed vaccination protocol (the country has developed its own vaccine passport),
- Negative PCR-Test made before arrival,
- No 14-days quarantine and free travel,
- Downloading of the smartphone app Overseas Entrants Locator (OEL) with GPS tracking to report daily temperature during the 14 first days of the stay. The development costs for this app amount to ¥7,3 billion (~64.3 million dollars) !
Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared shortly after his election in August 2020, that it was "necessary to resume international travels to revive the [Japanese] economy". In mid-October 2020, the goal of 60 million travelers by 2030 remained.
✅ Covid-19 responses in Japan
😷 People already in Japan can travel freely once all health checks are cleared.
✅ A slow-spreading Covid-19 epidemic in Japan
The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases slightly rose by (small) waves, but it stayed relatively low compared to many other countries, with, as of 2021, September 23 only:
😷 Confirmed cases: 1,688,917 (about 1,3% of the total population, compared to about 10% of the population in the United States)
☠️ Number of deaths: 17,319 (about ~14 deceased for 100.000 inhabitants, about 12 times less than in France)
The figures of the epidemic show a "peak" on 2020, April 30, but curbs quickly went down afterwards. With the growing number of targeted testings from late June, clusters were more easily identified, especially in the night industry in Tokyo and among the 20-30 years old. The number of confirmed-cases therefore naturally grew to form a second wave in summer, followed by a third and fourth stronger waves in winter 2021, then a fifth more virulent wave in summer 2021, due to the Delta variant. But the death toll is still relatively low compared to the rest of the world.
Most of Japanese people wear sanitary masks 😷 outside, and it was the habit way before the coronavirus outbreak, so people are not particularly worried about this. Japan has long developed civic-minded attitudes and health prevention that are culturally well integrated.
Vaccination started in Japan on 2021, February 17, with the authorization granted to Pfizer 3 days earlier, and a reserved number of doses exceeding the actual population. Sluggish in the beginning, the pace of the vaccination campaign eventually caught up and herd immunity should be reached in November.
✅ Short states of emergency and relative "lockdown" in Japan
Japan declared several states of emergency that often only affected part of its 47 prefectures (namely the areas with the largest populations such as Tokyo and surroundings, Osaka / Kyoto and surroundings and Hokkaido ant Fukuoka):
- From 2020, April 7 to May 25 (the entire country between April 16 and May 14),
- From 2021, January 12 to March 21, and,
- In Summer 2021, spanning largely the Olympic Games.
The state of emergency in Japan mainly consists in the reduction of opening hours for bars and restaurants and encouraging telework. Staying at home was only a "recommendation" of the government but was not enforced, as the Japanese constitution prevents from sanctioning offenders. The stay-at-home advice was however largely followed in the archipelago, as in many countries, such as Switzerland.
✅ Temporarily closed touristic attractions in Japan
Since mid-2020, touristic sites are not closed anymore, but several events (salons, matsuri, etc.) have been postponed or cancelled, as anywhere in the world. For that matter, feel free to bookmark our page Works and temporarily closed places to visit in Japan, which is updated frequently.
Japanese tourism industry and businesses are impatient to welcome back visitors in the archipelago and are ready for reopening. From April to July 2020, there were 99,9% foreign visitors less than in the precedent year. However, the gap tends to lessen thanks to the gradual reopening. Unfortunately, many businesses (even some deep-rooted ones) had to definitely close down in the meantime.
✅ GoTo Travel: subsidies to domestic tourism
The Japanese government has funded a ¥1,35 billion (~11.9 billions dollars) subsidy for an unheard-of campaign named "GoTo Travel" intended to revive domestic tourism after Covid. It consisted in paying up to half of the accommodation / food / souvenirs expenses of domestic visitors (namely only people living in Japan) between 2020, July 22 to December. Tokyo was initially excluded from the campaign, but was integrated from October 1.
At the end of August 2020, the campaign had benefited to more than 2 million Japanese. On its two first months, it covered more than 25 million nights. It was designed to last until June 2021, but it was halted in late 2020 and should be relaunched in autumn 2021.
Japan already began to prepare for a future return of international travelers, as this video of the Japanese National Tourism Organization shows.
✅ When to plan the next trip in Japan after Coronavirus?
If you are not at risk (see the beginning of this article) and that you don’t show symptoms, planning a trip to Japan once every official permission is cleared is possible.
What you should mainly pay attention to is the choice of the period for this trip. Indeed, despite the frustration from 2020 and 2021 seasons, tourists interested in Japan will certainly come back by waves. The border’s reopening will certainly be a good time to travel to Japan.
We recommend thinking smart to discover Japan in good conditions and book as soon as possible, especially for beautiful but underrated seasons, such as:
- February-March 2022 to admire the lovely plum trees and cherry trees’ blossoms,
- April 2022 for the end of sakura 🌸 season, probably less crowded than in 2019 (and before Golden Week),
- From early May 2022 (after the Golden Week) to enjoy the nice weather,
- July-August 2022 for the summer vibe, despite the heat and humidity,
- November and early December 2022, for the wonderful maple trees,
- Christmas and Year-end holidays, to watch beautiful illuminations.