In early December 2021, when the highly contagious variant of Omicron began to spread around the world, Japan closed its border. In fact, with the exception of the first months of the pandemic, it adopted a tougher border policy than in previous waves of infection.
The country would essentially remain closed to all non-Japanese citizens other than existing residents.
Among the many stranded travelers were around 150,000 international students who had enrolled in Japanese universities but never entered Japan after the borders were closed in March 2020. Businessmen, foreign specialists and technical trainees , a term used for foreign nationals, were also affected. who work in farms, fishing, food processing, hotels, nursing homes or other industries facing severe labor shortages.
Japan’s isolationist approach was only in line with a few other countries, such as China and Hong Kong. Australia and New Zealand – which previously had some of the toughest border rules, even barring their own citizens from returning home – recently reversed their two-year lockdowns.
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The Japanese government has been much more cautious. Following criticism from industry leaders and academics, it has now relaxed some of the entry rules. However, its general policy of banning most new entries has not changed. Tourists are still excluded.
Nevertheless, there are some welcome positive news that will come into effect from March 2022.
Increased cap on daily entries
In a first sign of hope, the current limit on arrivals at the Japanese border, capped at 3,500 (roughly the number of passengers on 17 planes), has been raised to 5,000 from March 1.
Vaccination status matters
One of the most important changes is that from March 1, Japan will distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers. This is an important step for a country that previously ignored entry vaccination status and has not adopted any type of vaccination passport for use at the national level.
Fully vaccinated travelers from high-risk countries can self-isolate at home for seven days. This period can be shortened to three full days with a negative covid test on the third day.
Fully vaccinated arrivals from low-risk countries have no quarantine requirements.
Fully vaccinated means three injections
A person who arrives is only qualified as vaccinated with proof of three injections. And the vaccines used must have been approved by Japan.
Currently, there are only four approved injections: the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer, Moderna, Astra-Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson. Additionally, the only recognized third hits are for Moderna and Pfizer.
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Travelers arriving in Japan with only two vaccination doses or less will qualify to enter as unvaccinated.
Unvaccinated people from high-risk countries are still subject to a government-run 3-day hotel quarantine. Unvaccinated entries from low-risk countries must self-quarantine at home for seven days, but can shorten this period to three days with testing on the third day after arrival.
The number of countries that are on the mandatory three-day quarantine list for government-run hotels has been drastically reduced to just 37 at press time, according to the Japanese government’s website.
Travelers arriving from Great Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Nepal, Norway, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, who are not triply vaccinated with a vaccine approved by Japan, have their mandatory quarantine period reduced from six days to three days for those who are not vaccinated.
Arrivals must test negative on the third day of their quarantine in order to leave their government-assigned hotel quarantine location.
The three-day isolation period at government-designated facilities has been lifted for unvaccinated travelers who test negative upon arrival in Japan from countries such as Australia, Spain, Thailand, the Philippines and the United States.
Unvaccinated children under the age of 13 can be quarantined with a triple-vaccinated family in a place chosen by themselves. Children 13 and older, however, must be quarantined in a government-organized hotel and a parent can stay with them.
Public transport allowed, but only for 24 hours
Getting home from the airport after arriving in Japan just got a whole lot easier. Under the new rules, from March 1, arrivals are allowed to use public transportation after arriving in Japan and testing negative upon arrival.
For more than a year, travelers arriving in Japan have been banned from all public transport – buses, trains, subways, planes, ferries and even taxis for 14 days. Special and expensive COVID-19 taxis had to be ordered – usually more than a day in advance – to get from the airport to the house or hotel. This required a small number of people to walk five hours from Haneda Airport to their homes in Tokyo.
People arriving from abroad now have 24 hours after their negative PCR test on arrival to take public transport, but they are asked to use the shortest route. It will also give people the option of flying to Hokkaido or Okinawa, where self-driving has not been an option.
Get tested on day 3
For those who have to self-quarantine at home and want to be tested on day 3 after arrival, things are still a bit complex.
They are banned from public transportation and therefore must be able to walk, cycle or drive a car to a testing site ーusually a clinicー on the third day, then return to their home or hotel and await the result.
It is also possible to order a test online and send a saliva sample on the third day and then wait for the test result.
When counting the duration of your quarantine, as before, the day of arrival counts as day zero. Tests to shorten self-quarantine times should all be self-funded.
New visa applications
Last but not least among the big changes, schools and companies can now apply for new visas on behalf of business partners, workers and students, if they agree to monitor that the incoming person will follow all quarantine rules. necessary and other measures imposed.
A new website has been set up by the Ministry of Health to facilitate applications, called ERFS or “Entrants, Returnees Follow-up System”. Once the application is approved, foreign participants will receive a Certificate of Eligibility (COE), a necessary step to obtain a visa stamped in the passport at a Japanese Embassy or Consulate overseas.
Only organizations, not individuals, can apply through this website. If you have a COE that has recently expired or is about to expire, a new policy on the validity period of a Certificate of Eligibility may be helpful as some COE holders may be eligible for an extension.
It is unclear whether people who currently have an unexpired COE should apply.
It also remains to be seen how quickly new visas will be issued and what kind of priorities will be given to whom. After two years of closed borders, there is a large backlog of old cases.
As a cap on daily arrivals remains in place, although it has now been raised to 5,000 people per day, many people will still have to wait a long time.
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Author: Agnes Tandler
Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, Agnes Tandler has been based in Japan, where her reporting covers COVID-19 for a daily newsletter on health care in Germany. Find more essays and reports for JAPAN Forward here.