When will Japan lift its travel ban and reopen for international tourists? We’re closely monitoring all advisories, the latest news, and plans for allowing spectators (or not) at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. (Updated March 20, 2021.)
The latest update is a mix of good and bad news–mostly bad. On the plus side, Japan’s central government has now lifted the state of emergency for all prefectures, including Tokyo. Numbers have improved significantly, but officials are still concerned that a resurgence is possible due to rising variants and as Japan heads into sakura season and people attend cherry blossom-viewing parties.
Additionally, the first round of vaccines is now slowly being distributed. Elderly residents are slated to be vaccinated from April 12, 2021 with other groups following that and the younger general public being eligible sometime in July 2021. Obviously, this isn’t directly related to reopening, but vaccinations help lower numbers, which has an impact. We’ll cover the bad developments below…
Prior to Japan declaring its first state of emergency, we planned on traveling to Japan for sakura season, staying for a couple of months for research and additions to our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto. These plans were abandoned at the last minute, and we stayed in the United States. That was now one year ago.
For the last year, we’ve been closely watching the improvements in Japan, hoping for some clarity as to when the country will fully reopen and Japan will begin allowing international tourists to enter once again. We’ve cancelled two return trips since then, most recently for April 2021. At this point, we’re aiming for November 2021, and wouldn’t be surprised if that can’t happen, either.
In terms of current travel advisories, Japan has imposed entry bans on 152 countries including the United States, Canada, all of Europe (including the United Kingdom), and most of Asia. The travel bans are currently in effect indefinitely. Japan has also temporarily suspended visa exemptions, making it necessary to apply for a visa prior to traveling.
Additionally, everyone entering Japan must undergo a mandatory quarantine at a designated location and may not use public transportation for 14 days upon arrival. Most foreigners, including those with residency in Japan or who have been to countries on the entry ban list within 14 days of their arrival in Japan, will be turned away under current border control measures.
In a nutshell, it’s presently impossible to visit Japan unless you are a Japanese citizen or meet one of the few exceptions. That’s probably not going to apply to anyone reading this English language blog post, so let’s turn to what the future holds…
As mentioned above, the latest update is that the state of emergency has been lifted. At this point, everything being done is with an eye on the Tokyo Olympics, due to start on July 23, 2021 following an unprecedented one-year postponement.
While there were rumors early in 2021 that the Tokyo Olympics would be cancelled, the Japanese government pushed back, calling these rumors “categorically untrue.” Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga promised “to deliver hope and courage to the world” by hosting the Olympic Games. All indications are that Japan plans to proceed with the Olympics and that it’s more a matter of how rather than if.
The latest development is that the heads of organizing bodies of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics have decided not to allow overseas spectators at the games. The Japanese government concluded that welcoming overseas spectators for the Tokyo Summer Olympics is not safe, due to fears that foreign travelers could lead to the spread of more contagious variants.
About 1 million tickets to the Tokyo Summer Olympics are believed to have already been sold abroad, and those will be refunded. In addition to not allowing foreign spectators, the Tokyo Summer Olympics will not allow foreign volunteers and will request countries limit their personnel for the games to only those who are essential.
This is disappointing, but unsurprising. There have been rumors of this decision for weeks, and Japan has been incredibly conservative with its borders and foreigners. It should go without saying, but the Tokyo Olympics are a very big deal to Japan and the country’s economic prospects.
Economists project that the absence of overseas spectators at the Olympics and Paralympics is likely to decrease overall consumer spending, including accommodation and dining expenses, by 60 to 70 billion yen ($643 million) from the total of 207.9 billion yen projected for the Tokyo Summer Olympics. While it’ll inflict damage on the tourism industry, public support in Japan for the Olympics has waned, as has also been the case for the government each time there has been a surge in new cases.
Previously, our prediction for Japan’s reopening was that it hinged upon the status of the Olympics. If the Summer Games didn’t allow foreign spectators, anyone reading this will be lucky to reenter Japan before 2022. The country has scapegoated foreigners as causing the virus to spread, and enacting strict border controls has been one of the government’s few tools in demonstrating its seriousness in controlling the situation (even though that has no basis in reality).
Some Japanese economists share this view that not allowing international tourists for the Olympics means not allowing them for a while. “If foreigners are not permitted to enter Japan for the Tokyo Olympics, the country may lose the opportunity to allow them in the future, although the plan was to gradually ease border controls after letting them in for the games,” Masato Koike, an economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute told Kyodo News.
However, this does not mean that all hope is lost in visiting Japan in 2021. The country just will continue playing things cautiously and will not be reopening on a widespread level by the summer. That doesn’t rule out Fall 2021, especially with some developments in the pipeline.
Once Japan resumes reopening its borders, foreign residents will be allowed to reenter Japan, albeit with quarantine and testing requirements. Reopening Japan’s borders to foreign residents was step one of their phased process. Following that will be entry for businesspeople and students from 10 countries including China, Australia, Brunei, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Allowing extended stay business travelers and international students to return is a necessary prerequisite to bringing back tourists. You can’t run before you walk.
The tentative plan is–or was–to allow leisure travel on a trial basis after that. Japan has a plan to roll out countermeasures and a travel program set up for international tourists. Once these safety measures are in place, the government plans to lift Japan’s travel ban on foreign tourists gradually.
The proposed health safety measures aim to cover the three steps of a tourist’s “journey” to Japan from arrival to stay to departure. This would be done via the establishment of a health management map and a dedicated “Fever Health Consultation Support Centre.”
In order to visit Japan, foreign tourists would be required to download the health management app, and will also need to obtain a pre-departure negative test certificate. Upon entering Japan, the tourist would once again be required to take a rapid PCR test. If the new arrival tests positive after entering Japan, they will be required to take out private medical insurance (or leave).
Those who test negative upon arrival to Japan will not be required to quarantine inside a hotel for 14 days. Instead, they’ll be required to report their health status through the health management app for 14 days after entering Japan. The Health Center will be set up in Tokyo specifically for overseas visitors to Japan as a way to take the pressure off local governments and avoid overburdening the Japanese health system.
However, it’s worth noting that this program began development last fall, and its debut was expected before vaccine rollout began. Although Japan is still in the process of developing this system, it may be superseded by something else: vaccine passports.
Japanese broadcaster NHK is reporting that Japan is now one of several countries looking to introduce a system of vaccine passports. While details are sparse, the European Union is furthest along in this process, with plans to roll out a Digital Green Certificate system that will show if a person has been vaccinated, received a negative test result, or recovered from the virus.
Our expectation is that Japan will not end up utilizing vaccine passports. Japan was previously opposed to a vaccine passport system out of fears that it would discriminate those who cannot be inoculated, for example those with allergies, which is not an insignificant chunk of Japan’s population.
Japan’s health leadership only stated they would consider vaccine passports after growing calls for them from business lobby groups who have seen the tourism and other sectors decimated. Pretty consistently throughout the last year, Japan giving a “we’ll look into it” response has been a polite way of dismissing a proposal. More likely, the aforementioned health safety “journey” will roll out eventually, albeit now after the Tokyo Summer Olympics instead of before them.
Ultimately, the system is built and ready to be implemented, so there’s no reason it couldn’t roll out on a trial basis in late 2021 if things have improved sufficiently. It will just take Japan’s case numbers declining, vaccines continuing to smoothly roll out, and trepidations easing. Unfortunately, it will almost certainly be after the Olympics at this point, as Japan would not block foreign spectators to the summer games but allow visitors for other purposes.
Japan undoubtedly has the resources, ingenuity, and dedication necessary to successfully bring such a system to fruition. The key question at this point is whether there’s the appetite for it. Many of Japan’s decisions–or lack thereof–the last several months have been driven by fear of cultural outsiders and indecisiveness.
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While the health safety caution v. economic concerns debate is currently being won by safety, at some point the scales will tip. Japan’s economy is heavily dependent on international tourists, which is due to a relatively recent policy initiative of former Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. In 7 years, the number of international tourists to Japan more than quadrupled.
Boosting tourism was core to Prime Minister Abe’s economic revitalization, and new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has indicated intent to maintain continuity with those economic plans. This makes sense, as increased inbound visitation was one of the biggest success stories of “Abenomics.”
Two years ago, Japan’s tourism numbers were up to a record 31.9 million visitors. The now-delayed Tokyo Olympics were instrumental to these plans, with Japan’s inbound tourism target for last year being 40 million visitors. Instead, only ~4 million international travelers visited Japan last year. The last ~11 months have seen all-time record lows with only 1,700 to 2,900 international visitors per month. That’s obviously far short of the original 40 million forecast.
Spending by a foreign tourist visiting Japan averages 137,948 yen, which is more than double the 60,995 yen spent by a domestic traveler for each trip, according to data from the Japan Tourism Agency.
Japan has already entered a recession, with the outlook for the next year-plus only looking optimistic if reopening can proceed. Decreased tourism plus falling exports, an increased consumption tax, reduced consumer spending, and growing national debt. Suffice to say, Japan’s economic health is likewise a serious issue, and inbound tourism was previously a bright spot. Of course, it’s not just about Japan scaling up testing or “needing” more tourists.
Questions still remain about how tourism will resume, and how the aforementioned health management plan, centers, and app will work. So many unknowns remain, a lot is still in flux, and things change on a weekly basis. It’s still possible that things will worsen. It’s also possible that Japan further accelerates these plans and moves forward the trial entry date for arrivals from select countries.
As such, we recommend Americans, Canadians, and Europeans take a conservative approach when choosing dates for your next trip to Japan. Sakura season and summer are both out the window now. Our recommendation at this point is September 2021 at the absolute earliest, which seems reasonable from both a vaccine rollout standpoint and is when domestic tourism starts slowing.
Now that Japan has made the decision not to allow foreign spectators at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, the border is unlikely to reopen until then. As noted towards the top of the post, we’re tentatively planning our next trip during fall foliage season in late November 2021–our favorite time of year in Japan! There’s nothing to say Japan will reopen even by those dates; it’s entirely possible Japan stays closed until early 2022 at this point. Either way, we’ll keep watching the news and keep you posted if/when there are further developments about Japan reopening and allowing entry to travelers from the United States, Canada, Europe, and beyond!
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.
Would you consider visiting Japan later this year, or is international travel out of the question for you until 2022? Thoughts on Japan’s decision not to allow foreign spectators at the Tokyo Summer Olympics? Are you assuaged at all by the relatively low number of cases in Japan? 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!