Japan’s Tourism Reopening: What We Know So Far

It was something of a tourism miracle: in the 2000s, Japan went from a relative blip on the international tourism radar to being one of the most sought-after travel destinations in the world. By 2019, following a concerted campaign by long-time prime minister Abe Shinzo and the build-up of Japanese pop-cultural might overseas, Japan topped the list of most popular international destinations for Chinese tourists [1]; Condé Nast Traveler named Tokyo the world’s “best big city,” and Japan became one of the most desired destinations for American holidaymakers. That year, 31.88 million international visitors made their way to Japan [2] – a number equivalent to about a fourth of the archipelago’s population. Inbound travel grew to such an extent that it was causing major over-tourism issues. Signs had to be posted around Kyoto warning tourists not to harass commuting geisha. Japan had become a global tourism hotspot.

Then, of course, it all came crashing down. With the spread of COVID-19 around the world came the shuttering of Japanese borders; borders which, generally speaking, have remained closed to newcomers for over two years. Japan had enacted the strictest entry policies out of the G7 nations. As a matter of course, international tourism collapsed; 2019’s nearly 32-million international visitors became a mere 4 million in 2020, mostly holdovers from before the travel ban. 2021 saw a measly 245,862 non-citizens arrive in the country. This represented a mere 0.77% of the aforementioned 2019 high, and included all those who came for the unlucky and delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Worse off were those non-tourists stuck overseas, waiting in limbo to reunite with loved ones or to start careers, schooling, or training.

Now, at long last, the Japanese government has seemingly announced a reopening of the borders. Coming on the heels of a long series of fits and startsthe Japanese government says that June will see Japan shifting border control to match the policies of other G7 members. International tourism, it seems, is finally back on the menu. But before you start packing your bags, there’s much to consider. Let’s take a look.

Two pairs of international tourists ride rickshaws in Japan.
International tourists riding rickshaws (jinrikisha人力車).

Is Japan Really Reopening for Tourism?

The announcement that Japan would begin a “partial lifting of the ban” on foreign tourism in June came down this past Saturday, May 7th. The exact nature of this sudden shift remains somewhat murky. The first type of tourism to be subject to this reopening will be “group tours”; that is to say, tourists will likely need to have confirmed packaged tour itineraries with a registered organization. (So, a far cry from a reopening to the average international tourist, and one likely to benefit certain larger organizations.) A gradual reduction of the strict border control policies currently in place will follow. [3]

This is likely not what many envisioned when Prime Minister Kishida recently spoke on the topic of shortly reopening the country. While in London this past week, Kishida said the following:

「6 月 に は 他 の G7 諸国 並 み に 円 滑 な 入 国 が 可能 と な る よ う 水 際 対 策 を 緩和 す る… 日本 は 世界 に オ ー プ ン だ。 ぜ ひ お 越 し」

“In June, we will ease our border controls in order to allow for smooth entry into the country along the lines of the other G7 nations… Japan is open to the world. Please come join us. “

Kishida Fumio, London, May 5th.

Further Restrictions

The reopening will also occur on a case-by-case basis, much like the recently eased entry for visa holders from 106 countries. Japanese governmental perceptions of the COVID situation in each country will likely determine the possibility of entry. We can expect the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) to release a list of accepted countries of origin as we approach June.

There also exists the issue of the daily cap on entry into Japan. Currently sitting at 10,000 entrants per day, that number is now planned to be doubled to 20,000 in June. While this is a major increase, it falls far short of the number of people who entered Japan on the daily before the pandemic. More than that, it also includes those who are returning to Japan for non-touristic reasons; Japanese citizens, as well as non-citizen workers, family members, students, and more. Many of those who were stranded outside of Japan for the past years are only now receiving their visas and entering the country, so that 20,000 will not be made entirely of those coming to Japan solely for a good time.

The National Diet Building in Tokyo, symbol of the government now engaged in structuring the reopening of Japan.
The National Diet Building, were the government enacts laws.

What About Quarantine and Testing?

Until very recently, it was necessary for everyone entering Japan to undergo a strict period of self-isolation. For most coming from designated “dangerous countries,” this included three days at a government facility. This was followed by eleven days of self-quarantine at a hotel or one’s home; mobile apps made push notifications multiple times a day which prompted the new arrival to prove they were still in their designated quarantine location. Since March, the Japanese government made a major change to this policy: quarantine was waived for those who could prove they had received three vaccinations against COVID-19. (Provided these arrivals were from designated safe countries.)

Two-way PCR testing has also been also necessary; a document in the correct formatting showing a negative text within 72 hours was presented on arrival, followed by a second PCR test taken at the airport in Japan.

Now, the Japanese government is weighing doing away with both of these restrictions. Yesterday, on the 11th, Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu said that continued use of quarantine and testing measures would be put under consideration during the current examination of border control policies. [4] So, like so much here, exactly what form changes may take is still up in the air. Removing quarantine would, at least, get rid of the most major of the hurdles for a short trip to Japan. (Other than the current impossibility of securing a tourist visa itself.)

Japanese covid documents - quarantine policy may soon make a PCR test and proof of booster enough to skip isolation upon entry to Japan.
Japanese COVID-19 vaccination documents.

Familiar Faces Appearing in Japan

While all this is going on, some have noticed a few well-known celebrities making their way into Japan. One of these is Kanye West, recently embroiled in controversy regarding his divorce from Kim Kardashian. Kanye has supposedly been in the country since April; how exactly he was able to get in when so many cannot is perhaps a matter of speculation, although one can imagine it was under the guise of business.

Swedish YouTube star PewDiePie has also just moved to the country; in his case di lui, entry to Japan was a long time coming. One of the most popular online content creators of the past decade, PewDiePie purchased a house in Japan in 2019. Like many, his move to Japan was delayed by the pandemic. [5]

The appearance of such celebrities in Japan has been celebrated by some fans, while serving as a source of frustration for others still waiting their turn. Despite (non-touristic) visas finally, if slowly, being issued, seeing the rich and powerful enter the country when you’re waiting on a return call from your local embassy can be hard to swallow. (Even if, in PewDiePie’s case, he too had to wait years to enter.)

Reopening: to Sum Up

So, Japan is indeed moving towards reopening to tourism. However, it’s not nearly as cut-and-dried as Prime Minister Kishida made it seem. It would appear that June will see an initial experiment with group packaged tourism; who exactly will be able to come in on such a program is still up in the air. From there, things may move quickly, but just as likely may slow again as post-Golden Week COVID rates as in. So far, the Japanese government has proven to be extremely reticent towards making sweeping changes toward the COVID status-quo. It wouldn’t be the first time Japan reversed course following worrisome COVID surges.

Many also worry about what a sudden influx of international tourism might bring with it; while there would be economic benefits, many international tourists may not have the same attitudes towards public masking as are common in Japan. There may be domestic cultural backlash.

On the other hand, reopening tourism would do more than just revitalize local industries and locales. Tourist visas are often how people are able to maintain ties, seeing family members, friends, and loved ones who live in other countries. Tourist visas are the lifeblood of common connections between those whose lives exist simultaneously within different national borders. Unmarried couples, unable to obtain spousal visas, have borne the burden of separation these two years. So have many married LGBT couples. (On a national level, Japan does not recognize same-sex marriage, although some visa exceptions have been made.) Sadly, group package tours won’t do much to enable people in these sorts of relationships to have their much-delayed reunions.

So, while things are looking good for those hoping to get to Japan, there’s still much left to be decided. As we’ve all become used to doing over the past two years, we’ll still have to wait and see.

What to Read Next:

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Sources:

[1] Yutong, Wang. (1/21/2019). Japan becomes most visited destination for Chinese tourists in 2019. CGTN.

[2] (January 2019). White Paper on Tourism in Japan, 2019 (Summary). Japan Tourism Agency, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

[3] (2022 年 05 月 07 日). 観 光 客 受 け 入 れ 、 6 月 に も 再 開 入 国 上限 引 き 上 げ へ – 政府 調整. Jiji Press Ltd.

[4] Reuters. (2022/05/11). 入 国 制 限 緩和 、 6 月 以降 の 検 査 ・ 待機 方法 は 検 討 中 = 官 房 長官. Yahoo! News Japan.

[5] Clane. (2022/05/12). 登録 者 数 世界 一位 の YouTuber 、 つ い に 日 移 住. マ イ ナ ビ ニ ュ ー ス

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