When will Japan lift its travel ban and reopen for international tourists? We closely monitor foreign visitor advisories, news, plans for Tokyo’s Summer Olympics, states of emergency, vaccine passports, and inoculation progress. (Updated July 23, 2021.)
The troubled Tokyo Olympics are officially underway, but begin under a cloud of surging cases, slowing vaccinations, adamant opposition among the Japanese public, and a state of emergency that will run until at least August 22, 2021. The Opening Ceremony was joyous yet muted, and events will be held without spectators amid fears of the Games being a superspreader event in Japan. Suffice to say, our late July 2021 update to this reopening question does not bring optimistic news.
If you’re simply looking for an official answer about when Japan will reopen, we don’t have that–and no one knows. If you’d like to be notified as soon as an announcement is made by Japan’s government, subscribe to our free email newsletter. This post is purely speculative, with commentary about variables that’ll impact Japan’s border reopening later, and when we anticipate the travel ban ending…
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 18 months 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. 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 over 150 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…
Prior to now, everything done was with an eye on ensuring success of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which are now underway through August 8, 2021. Fans have been banned from sporting venues altogether, as the Japanese government concluded that allowing spectators for the Olympics is not safe, due to fears of spreading new variants.
Obviously, this means overseas visitors are not allowed at the Tokyo Summer Olympics–even official foreign delegations have been limited in their attendance. All of this is unsurprising, as Japan has been incredibly conservative with its borders and foreigners.
The Tokyo Olympics are a very big deal to Japan and the country’s economic prospects. Economists are projecting staggering direct losses due to the absence of spectators at the Olympics and Paralympics, which is likely to decrease overall consumer spending by as much as 70 billion yen ($643 million).
However, the indirect economic advantages of the Olympics remain. The Games will expose and highlight Japan to a global audience for two weeks, which normally has a high residual value for the travel & tourism sectors. Still, a high percentage of people in Japan wanted the Games cancelled, and the event moved forward in large part due to sunk costs and the long-term value they’ll offer to Japan’s tourism marketing initiatives.
Beyond the Olympics, the economic reliance on international tourists is one big reason why Japan is expected to reopen its border later in 2021. Boosting tourism was core to former Prime Minister Abe’s economic revitalization, and current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has indicated intent to maintain continuity with those economic plans.
The Tokyo Olympics were instrumental to these plans, with Japan’s inbound tourism target for last year being 40 million visitors, up from a record 31.9 million visitors the year before. Instead, only ~4 million international travelers visited Japan.
Economists fear a “double dip” recession in Japan due to the prolonged state of emergency. 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. At some point, reopening to international visitors will be necessary for Japan’s economy.
With that in mind, the Tokyo Summer Olympics are only indirectly relevant for reopening purposes, as are current states of emergency. What does matter are case rates and vaccinations. Let’s take a look at the latest surge in new cases…
Japan is in the midst of a new surge in cases. The Tokyo metropolitan government reported 1,979 new daily cases on July 22, the highest number since mid-January. This comes as fears grow that the Olympics could become a superspreader event amid the transmission of the highly contagious Delta variant.
This has no direct bearing on Japan’s border reopening, which is still months away at the earliest. However, it does not bode well. Regardless of whether the Games turn into a superspreader event, a surge in cases even coinciding with the Olympics will give rise to further trepidations amongst an already wary and cautious Japanese public about reopening borders. Moreover, if the current wave worsens or extends, that will directly delay the reopening. Japan is highly unlikely to drop its travel ban until cases are at a sustained low level and its healthcare system is not at all strained.
We turn next to Japan’s vaccination progress as of late July 2021, which paints a more optimistic picture. Japan has now administered over 74 million inoculations, which is nearly five times the number as of the beginning of last month. Approximately 75% of the elderly and 35% of the total population have already received one vaccination.
In July, Japan is averaging over 1 million vaccine doses per day–or over 10 million per week, for the fastest pace in the world. However, this progress is starting to slow due to a supply shortage causing some vaccination centers to cancel reservations. (See blue line on the above graph via Kyodo News.) This is expected to be a temporary blip, with Japan requesting that Pfizer speed up its delivery timeline.
Additionally, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has placed Tokyo under a fourth state of emergency during the Summer Olympics as a “precautionary measure” aimed largely at preventing spread from Tokyo to other areas of the country. In his remarks urging caution, Suga also expressed optimism.
Suga stated that by the end of this month, 40% of Japan’s population will be vaccinated and everyone who wants a vaccine will have access to one. He indicated that this is around the threshold where other countries have started to see drops in their case rates. Suga further said: “The vaccination reduces severe cases and death rates, even against variants. The vaccination is crucial to suppress the pandemic…after that, we will come back to normal life.”
In his remarks at the same press conference, Japan’s health minister indicated that he expected this to be Japan’s last state of emergency, as the rate of vaccinations by the end of August 2021 should relieve the burden on Japan’s healthcare systems.
Whether the current state of emergency is truly a precautionary measure ahead that’ll give way to a reopening will depend entirely on the trajectory of cases come mid-August 2021. If case numbers go down during the Olympics, and if there’s no spike attributed to the Summer Games, the public will see that. The Japanese might then be more receptive to reopening the borders since that large event–with people from around the world–did not have negative ramifications.
However, in looking at the new cases graph above and comparing that to previous waves, that scenario is now seeming increasingly unlikely. Trend-wise, it appears Japan is at the beginning of a new wave of cases, rather than the end of one. Of course, the Delta variant and rising vaccinations could make this wave different than prior ones.
Regardless, Suga’s remarks suggest that Japan is approaching the light at the end of the tunnel and is preparing for normalcy post-summer. Obviously, the vaccine campaign isn’t directly tied to Japan’s reopening–it’s not as if once the country hits a certain percentage vaccinated, its borders will automatically reopen.
However, immunity is essentially the only way out of this endless cycle of lockdowns and loosening of restrictions. The vaccine campaign being successful in flattening case numbers is thus a necessary prerequisite to the border reopening.
To that point, a recent research report indicates that Japan may achieve herd immunity by October 18, 2021 thanks to acceleration in the country’s inoculation drive. This date has been moved forward by over two months since the previous forecast was made. This is not altogether surprising, nor is the mid-October 2021 date for herd immunity unrealistic.
Japan currently has access to over 130 million doses of the two mRNA vaccines, and has agreements to receive shipments of more than enough doses for its entire population by September 2021. As with other countries around the world that have been successful in inoculation campaigns, once distribution woes are resolved, demand quickly becomes a bigger issue than supply. (Look at how quickly the U.S. went from having registration websites crashing to bribing people with beer.)
In related news, Japan will launch vaccine certificates on July 26, 2021. This is Japan’s version of a vaccine passport, which will include the date of vaccination and its manufacturer, and use special paper to combat counterfeiting. Plans are to eventually offer them digitally via app.
Japan has requested other countries to ease entry requirements for holders of this vaccination certificate. In past updates, we’ve expressed a skeptical (okay, downright cynical!) view towards Japan’s vaccine passports. The official verbiage from Japanese leaders was that the country would consider vaccine passports. Thinking about doing something is not the same as doing something, as we’ve seen repeatedly from Japan in the last 18 months. However, it’s different this time.
Japan leaders have stated that they are “exploring” reciprocal moves for incoming travelers as part of a push to revive international travel. This seems likely to occur with some countries, as the principle of reciprocity provides that benefits granted by one country should be returned in kind.
In lay terms, this means that Japan will need to ease its own entry restrictions in order for other countries to do the same for Japanese visitors. Quite simply, Japan would not have created the vaccine certificate program if there wasn’t the expectation they’d allow reciprocal entry of international visitors from at least some countries.
To that point, Japan has begun surveying overseas arrivals about their vaccination status as it explores the feasibility of exempting those vaccinated abroad from the country’s strict entry restrictions, government sources told the Japan Times.
Japan’s government plans to use the responses to its survey in conjunction with other data, such as each vaccine’s efficacy, to determine whether border measures can be eased in the future. According to health authorities, the current bans and quarantine requirements are unsustainable with some officials of the opinion that they “cannot continue indefinitely.”
Our expectation is that Japan will continue “exploring” reciprocity of the vaccine certificates until after the Summer Olympics. The idea is to play things cautiously until that event is over, and not reopen on a widespread level this summer. That doesn’t rule out Fall 2021, especially with the current vaccine timeline, and the fact that tourists are crucial to Japan’s economy.
Some readers have questioned this optimism for Fall 2021, wondering why Japan would block Olympics attendees but allow them only a month or two later. The reasons are two-fold. First, the timing of vaccinations, with widespread availability more or less coinciding with the Olympics. That would dramatically ease the health burden and facilitate a loosening of restrictions, especially if Japan’s case trends follow every other country once ~50-60% of its population has been vaccinated.
Second, the Olympics will involve some domestic traveling within Japan, plus athletes and support staff arriving in the country. That alone will pose risk and could cause another case spike. (Thankfully, the current vaccination rate should backstop some of that.) Add tens of thousands of foreign visitors, and that would be further exacerbated.
However, if those foreign visitors are shifted to a couple months later, they’re potentially less of a concern. It also doesn’t help that the Olympics are unpopular among the Japanese–adding foreign visitors to the mix is simply not palatable among the population.
Once Japan resumes reopening its borders, it’s expected to be a phased process starting with foreign residents, followed by students and certain business travelers. The tentative plan is–or was–to allow leisure travel 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.
Originally, 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 app and a dedicated “Fever Health Consultation Support Centre.” However, it’s worth noting that this program began development last fall, and its debut was expected before vaccine rollout began. This might still debut at some point for unvaccinated visitors, but our expectation is that it’ll be largely superseded by vaccine passports and certificates.
Ultimately, as bleak as it feels now for travel to Japan, things could change in a hurry by late summer if vaccinations continue at a high rate and there’s a sustained fall in cases. We’re seeing this occur in other places where vaccination rates are high; while Japan is more cautious and conservative, they’re also dependent upon tourism.
On a personal note, we are tentatively planning our next trip during fall foliage season in late November 2021–our favorite time of year in Japan. If you’re planning a visit, our recommendation at this point is late Fall 2021 at the absolute earliest, which seems reasonable from both a vaccine rollout standpoint and is when domestic tourism starts slowing.
However, there’s nothing to say Japan will reopen even by those dates. We do not want to create false optimism–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! Again, if you’d like to be notified as soon as more details are released or rumored, subscribe to our free email newsletter for ongoing updates.
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 any 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!