Japan’s tourism ministry has released guidelines for tourists and travel agencies that will run monitored tours as part of the country’s very limited resumption of group tourism. This post will cover the preposterous proposals, and offer commentary about what’s motivating these rules.
First, basic background about the monitored tours that’ll begin on June 10, 2022 can be found in Japan Reopening for Guided Tours. That details the trial tours that have been underway up until now, as well as the road ahead for this plan.
In a nutshell, Japan is going to allow tourists to enter the country for the first time in 27 months, but the 98 countries (such as the United States, France, Britain, China, South Korea, and Thailand) that Japan views as low risk and under strict parameters.
“To resume inbound tourism, it is important that the places where tourists will be visiting are willing to accept them and feel safe,” Japan Tourism Minister Tetsuo Saito said at a press conference.
“If travel agencies and others comply with the guidelines, inbound tourism will resume smoothly and lead to a further increase (in foreign tourists).”
Along with that press conference, the Japan Tourism Agency released guidelines (in Japanese) setting out what travel agencies and their escorts, as well as foreign tourists, will be required to do before and during their trips to Japan.
Most notably, foreign tourists will be required to wear face masks and take out insurance to cover medical expenses in the event they contract COVID-19. To help foreign tourists understand these guidelines, the JNTO has released “helpful” infographics that we’ll insert and reference throughout this post.
If foreign tourists don’t comply with the guidelines, they may not be allowed to continue participating in the tour. (As such, these aren’t so much “guidelines” as they are enforceable rules carrying consequences.)
guidelines regimented rules, travel agencies will gain the consent of tour participants to comply with the measures by explaining upon sales or reservation of tours that they will not be penalized for failing to comply. However, they may not be able to take part in tours if they don’t. (Again, not being allowed to take part in the tour–when the only other option is leaving the country–is absolutely a penalty.)
Prior to traveling, Foreign tourists will also need to register before their monitored trips with the Visit Japan Web and MySOS app for Fast-Track services, which will allow them to upload their immigration and quarantine paperwork before landing in Japan.
Upon arrival, travelers will show the MySOS’s Blue Screen at a quarantine office, which indicates that all required information has been submitted and the authorities’ review is complete. Following that, travelers will show QR codes from Visit Japan Web at Immigration and Customs. Tourists who failed to purchase travel insurance will also be able to buy a version that offers medical facilities, interpreters, and has cashless medical service.
While on the ground traveling throughout Japan, foreign tourists will need to take basic precautions: disinfecting their hands and avoid the “three Cs” of closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings.
Some of this is grounded in science. In particular, it’s nice to see an emphasis on ventilation–something from which other countries could have benefited two years ago. Other advice is more dubious, giving the impression that these guidelines were drafted in March 2020, rather than June 2022.
For instance, it has long been well-settled that fomite transmission is exceedingly rare in real-world settings. Yet, many of the guidelines are premised upon it. (“Portion out servings in advance when sharing food” is a fun one!)
Then there are the many guidelines about talking. While vocalization does change the transmission risk profile, there’s also the sense that Japan is seizing this opportunity to make enforceable rules prohibiting tourists from being obnoxious. (I’ve seen “keep quiet” signs in Kyoto for years before COVID-19.) Can’t fault them for trying, I guess.
The guidelines also state that travel agencies will set tour routes to avoid crowded areas and select facilities that thoroughly implement antivirus measures, and gather information on multilingual medical institutions and hotels for isolation.
While in Japan, the travel agencies will transport tour participants found to be infected to medical institutions and support them until they leave the country. The groups will also ask participants to notify the agencies if the individual is found to be infected within a week after returning home.
The travel agencies will keep records of the tours, including places they visited and where each individual sat in public transportation (no joke!), so that if participants are found to be infected they can quickly identify close contacts who need to be isolated.
Those who are not close contacts will be able to continue their tour. In Japan, a close contact is defined as someone who spent 15 minutes or more unmasked within 1 meter of a positive case, meaning that anyone who dines with or near someone who becomes infected will be a close contact.
This isn’t just some theoretical issue or something that’ll be ignored in practice. It’s already happened during Japan’s trial tours for travel agents from the United States, Australia, Singapore and Thailand.
During the first of those, the Thai group’s tour was suspended after one participant tested positive for the virus. Given the pre-departure and arrival testing protocol, that travel agent was almost certainly infected in Japan.
To that point, it’s also worth noting that Japan’s average daily number of COVID-19 cases has been above the global average since January. This is even without taking into account Japan’s testing infrastructure, which was insufficient and more limited than most developed nations during the peak of the Omicron wave.
So, the notion that only foreigners can “import” cases to Japan is not just ludicrous, it’s objectively incorrect. Statistically speaking, residents of Japan are more likely to infect foreign tourists than vice-versa. The widespread belief that Japan is still outperforming the rest of the world is belied by this year’s data.
Most of these rules/guidelines would simply be eye roll inducing if it weren’t for this data. Just another instance of “Japan being Japan,” a culture preoccupied with rules and a compulsion for orderliness and control. Some of them could even be construed as nice reminders of best practices for staying healthy, etc.
However, there’s also the animating context for these policies, which is that the Japanese view their approach to COVID-19 as superior to the rest of the world. That lends a misplaced sense of authority to imposing draconic rules like this on cultural outsiders who lack the same sensibilities and hygiene that helped Japan achieve its perceived success.
To that point, these rules are also nonsensical. (We’d stop slightly short of calling them racist or xenophobic, but only because they apply based on travel visa status or residency, and not on nationality or ethnicity. In practice, that’s a distinction without much of a difference.)
No one but foreign tourists is subject to these rules. Japanese residents have been able to freely travel domestically and abroad for a while, and are not subject to such onerous requirements upon returning home. Nor is anyone who is simply living and going about daily life in Japan required to follow such guidelines. And, as indicated above, those individuals are the ones who have a higher risk profile than foreign tourists arriving from lower risk countries. Again, as an objective matter based on daily case counts.
The argument could be made that there’s a social contract in Japan that people wear masks and engage (or don’t) in other social customs and mores. That’s entirely fair, and it’s also true that culturally, Japan has been better about these practices than virtually anywhere else. (Of course, that ‘superior hygiene’ coupled with the case data does beg the question: are any of these measures actually effective at preventing infection? But that can of worms is beyond the scope of this post.)
That doesn’t change the reality that no one aside from foreign tourists is subject to these “guidelines” and there are no real consequences for anyone else choosing to not mask, disinfect their hands, or whatever. Glaring looks or other passive aggressive reactions don’t count as an actual consequence.
On a positive note, the Japan Tourism Agency also indicated that policies that apply to other short-term travelers from abroad will likewise apply to those on the monitored tours. “It doesn’t mean [tourists in groups] are banned from going out on their own in their free time…it’s the same as with business travelers. They are allowed to have their own free time, and so are the tourists.”
Rather, travel agencies will act as the host for the tourists and make sure they comply with COVID-19 restrictions, seek medical treatment if one of them is infected with the virus, and report to public health authorities. In that sense, the travel agencies are the responsible party and ones vouching for the tourists–similar as the hosts for others now able to enter Japan. The critical distinction is that these tours are also on specific itineraries that are actively being monitored, and noncompliance with “guidelines” could result in their (necessary) hosting being terminated early.
Ultimately, these rules for monitored tours are arguably draconian, stuck in March 2020, and carry concerning consequences. While calling them North Korea-style would be hyperbolic, it’s not that far off base. These “guidelines” are certainly closer to that than they are to anything being done by Japan’s counterparts in the Group of Seven.
Nevertheless, these guided tours are also likely symbolic. As we’ve stated before, these are not going to occur at any meaningful scale, and as such will not be economically fruitful in the way that an actual border reopening would be. To the contrary, it’s entirely possible that the money being spent on drafting guidelines and monitoring mechanisms far exceeds any revenue resulting from the tourists who join these groups.
The goal here is more likely demonstrating to the Japanese public that the government is doing everything it can to train and control reckless and irresponsible foreigners, making sure they’re on their best behavior when visiting Japan so as to not infect those with superior hygiene (but higher case rates). Like recent interviews and other incremental changes, this feels like it’s more about gradually shifting public opinion and behavior, laying the groundwork for more substantive and materially meaningful changes–ones that can bear economic fruit–in the months to come.
There is a bit of irony that these stringent guidelines are being released at the same time Japan’s government is trying to encourage its own citizens that it’s okay to relax their precautions and resume daily life. These disparate approaches likely have the same end in mind: a gradual resumption of consumption and economic activity. While Japan is missing out on the tourism boom being experience in other countries around the world in part by keeping its border closed, it’s also missing out on that to an even larger degree based on the reticence of the Japanese to get back to normal.
In any case, we’ll keep monitoring the situation and providing regular updates in When Will Japan Reopen for Individual Self-Guided Tourists? Here’s hoping for some news about an actual resumption of tourism to Japan in the not-too-distant future.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan, check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other things to do! We also recommend consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto and Ultimate Guide to Tokyo to plan.
What do you think of the “guidelines” that Japan has released for monitored tours? Anything strike you as reasonable or unreasonable? Would you consider visiting Japan this summer or fall as part of a guided tour group? Or is that a hard pass for you? When do you expect a proper reopening to individual tourists? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? If you’re planning your trip to Japan, what do you think about these itineraries? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!