It’s the moment that those who love Japan have been waiting on for years. After imposing a set of onerous restrictions on visitors, Japan has announced that they are dropping all restrictions on tourism effective October 11th.
The long lockdown
During the COVID-19 pandemic, every nation around the world went into lockdown. Japan was no exception. The country, whose economy derives nearly 5% of its GDP from tourism, suspended the visa exemption arrangements it has with 68 other countries. For years, you could only enter Japan if you were a citizen, a permanent resident, or (eventually) a relative.
Mind you, not everyone was unhappy about this. Tourist pollution is a real thing in Japan, particularly in popular areas such as Kyoto. But businesses that depended on tourism for survival were severely hit. As of September 12th, for example, over 4,000 eateries in Japan have closed due to the pandemic.
The travel ban also had an impact on academia and students. Some 400,000 international students were barred from entering Japan until earlier this year. Experts say the impact on Japan’s global standing and reputation will be felt for years.
The government initially aimed to open up for foreign students and business travelers in December of 2021. However, they then banned most incoming travel in December due to the Omicron variant. The Kishida government had to clarify the confusing policy, which at first blush seemed to also ban entry to all Japanese nationals.
The slow easing
Since the initial “re-opening” in April, the government has steadily loosened restrictions on entry. In June, they announced they would “re-open to tourism”.
However, they were several fishing net-sized catches. Japan would not lift its suspension of visa-free travel; travelers would still need to obtain a visa from an embassy. Even more onerous was that Japan decreed that travelers had to book their travel through an approved travel agency. What’s more, their movements would be restricted to their tour group.
This “re-opening” mostly drew derision, with many calling it “the North Korean travel package”. It certainly didn’t lead to a flood of new arrivals: in June, Japan saw only 7,903 tourists.
What’s ironic is that foreign travelers would likely have been spending a lot of money if they could just get in. The yen is currently at its weakest point against the dollar – a 24-year low of about 144 yen per USD.
Spurred by this (and, perhaps, current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s plummeting approval ratings), government spokespeople hit the talk show circuits the weekend of September 10th to tout a true re-opening. The reports in local media were quickly picked up by English language outlets, which stirred excitement amongst the global Japan fan community. The news also briefly lifted the Japanese stock market, which saw the move as a possible brake on the ever-cheapening yen.
What’s been announced (and bring your masks)
In a press conference in New York on September 22nd, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio announced that Japan would fully re-open for tourism on October 11th.
Details are still sketchy as of this writing. But Kishida also said that visa-free travel would resume and the visitor cap (now at 50,000) will be removed.
The move was not unexpected. Government functionaries have been leaking whispers of a reopening for over a week now. The change is partially motivated by Japan’s ever-weakening yen, which now stands at 24 years historic lows of around 143 yen per US dollar. That’s good news for tourists – but not great news for Japan’s economy. Many are hoping that the reopening gives Japan’s economy a boost it sorely needs.
Obviously this is a development that’s been long in coming. I fully expect Japan to be clogged with tourists and airports to be jam packed come October 11th.
However, I’d also urge travelers to remember that there’s still a deadly and debilitating disease out there. Getting COVID-19 sucks. It’ll suck even worse if you’re in a foreign country. Please take precautions, such as masking in crowds and enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. Make sure you get plenty of rest after landing. And, even though you’re on vacation, make sure you’re eating relatively well and not indulging to excess.
Also, make sure you’re up on all local regulations if (when?) you go. The situation is fluid and there will likely be changes that impact your travel rolling out in the coming weeks. For example, the Kishida government is proposing a change to the country’s Hoteling law that will enable hotels, ryokans, etc. to enforce masking policies by denying service to those who refuse to comply. This change isn’t law yet but I would expect it to move pretty quickly through Japan’s Diet.
One contingent that might be less happy about this announcement? People living in Japan. The lockdown has created a lot of opportunity for local tourists to enjoy areas like Kyoto that are usually clogged in normal times. An episode of the popular show The World Unknown to Matsuko (マツコの知らない世界) that aired just this week showed lingering shots of sparsely populated streets in popular areas like Kiyomizudera Sando.
I’m sure, given a few months, tourists and locals will find a way to exist in harmony. For those of you outside of Japan who’ve been longing to return – better start shopping for tickets and packing your bags!
 Foreign students set to return but damage ‘already done’. University World News
 Over 100,000 foreign visitors to Japan in July for 4th month in row. Kyodo News
 ＮＹダウが一時８００ドル超の下落、円安加速で１ドル＝１４４円台に…ＣＰＩが市場予想上回る. Yomiuri Shinbun
 政府 水際対策 入国者数の上限撤廃含めさらなる緩和を検討. NHK News
 飲食店の倒産が610件に～新型コロナ関連倒産4058件～. Teikoku Databank