When will Japan lift its travel ban and reopen for international tourists? As a planning site with strategy for visiting Kyoto, Tokyo, and beyond, we’re closely monitoring all advisories, the latest news, and progress. (Updated January 2, 2021.)
As background, the Japanese central government declared a state of emergency after much hesitation. At the time, official spread was low (aside from the Diamond Princess), with some speculating that Japan had purposefully avoided testing in an effort to salvage the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Once the summer games were officially postponed until July 23, 2021, Japan requested people to stay home and schools & businesses voluntarily closed. Japan never enacted a stringent lockdown and the state of emergency was lifted after a couple months. Aside from mild bumps, Japan never saw a significant spike in cases to the extent of Europe or the United States…
We originally planned on traveling to Japan for sakura season, staying for a little over one month to research and update our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto. These plans were abandoned at the last minute, and we stayed in the United States. It was difficult because we likely would’ve felt safer in Japan, but the uncertainty of being in a foreign country (and potentially being stranded there) outweighed that.
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 are eager to return, but also apprehensive–more on that towards the bottom of the post.
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. Foreigners, including those with residency in Japan, 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…
The latest update is not a slew of bad news, and updates that jeopardize the reopening plans discussed further down the post. On January 2, 2021, Japan’s government announced that it will consider whether to declare another state of emergency. This follows a joint appeal from the governors of Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba, and Kanagawa prefectures for the central government to declare a state of emergency due to record-breaking numbers of new infections that have strained the medical system.
Thus far, the central government has been hesitant to declare another state of emergency due to the potential fallout on Japan’s economy, which has started recovering after a rough year, as well as due to the impact on the postponed Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer. Instead, Japan has urged restaurants to close earlier and residents to refrain from making nonessential outings after 8 p.m.
Another state of emergency would hinder athletes’ training for the Tokyo Olympics, due to start on July 23, 2021 following an unprecedented one-year postponement. It would also further fan the flames on a debate about whether the Olympics should be held at all.
The opening ceremony is set to take place in approximately 200 days, and with the unexpected appearance of new variants of the virus Japan has strengthened entry restrictions on incoming travelers. Special procedures developed to expedite the safe entry of athletes from overseas ahead of the Olympics have been partially suspended as a result.
This brings us to the next update, which is that last week Japan suspended new entry into the country of nonresident foreign nationals from around the world. This suspension will continue for the next few weeks, through late January 2021 as a precautionary step against the new, potentially more transmissible UK variant.
Japan has already reported several cases of the variant, but medical experts have nonetheless encouraged stronger border control. “Once a highly transmissible variant spreads, the number of infections could surpass 2,000 in a single day in Tokyo, eventually necessitating another state of emergency” over the virus, warned Atsuo Hamada, a professor at Tokyo Medical University.
Despite this, a gradual reopening of Japan’s borders remains in process. Foreign residents are allowed to reenter Japan, albeit with quarantine and testing requirements. Reopening Japan’s borders to foreign residents was step one of their phased process.
Businesspeople and students from 10 countries including China, Australia, Brunei, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam with which Japan has a special scheme to ease travel restrictions, will not be affected by the suspension. So at least that’s one positive and indicator that Japan is not reverting to a total travel ban. 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.
On the vaccine front, things are progressing slowly. Japan’s government still has not given regulatory approval to any of the vaccine candidates. However, the country is stepping up preparations with the decision on whether to approve the vaccine expected in February. Japan has contracts with three US and European pharmaceutical companies for a total of 290 million doses of their vaccines.
Japan plans to give shots to healthcare workers first, beginning as soon as late February 2021. Elderly people will likely start getting inoculated in late March 2021, to be followed by people with underlying health conditions in April 2021. No timeline has been revealed for the general public.
Prior to all of the above updates, Japan unveiled a plan to roll out countermeasures and a travel program set up for international tourists by January 2021. Once these safety measures are in place, the government plans to lift Japan’s travel ban on foreign tourists on a trial basis beginning in April 2021.
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 specifically for overseas visitors to Japan as a way to take the pressure off local governments and avoid overburdening the Japanese health system. The Health Center will likely be established in Tokyo, which makes sense as both the capital and the host city for the Summer Olympics.
Japanese government leaders indicate that the new health safety measures for international tourists will remain in place during and after the Tokyo Summer Olympics as Japan attempts to take incremental and deliberate steps towards reviving Japan’s battered tourism industry.
However, the officials concede that there are still many issues to be resolved before this system is deployed and the ban on foreign tourists is lifted–even on a trial basis. This includes how to ensure the app is used, the number of tourists allowed in during the Olympics, and what limitations will be placed on tourist activities while in Japan.
Given the latest updates and new restrictions as of January 2021, we are skeptical about this plan. While Japan took several steps forward late last year, those have now been partially undone. Moreover, another state of emergency (if one occurs) could be the death knell for the Olympics.
Without the Tokyo Olympics in the backdrop, Japan may lose all sense of urgency for these reopening procedures. At this point, the clock is ticking on the Tokyo Summer Olympics. While there have been repeated delays and missed target dates for Japan’s reopening, Spring 2021 is pretty much the deadline for getting things back on track if the Olympics are to proceed. In order for that to happen, Japan needs at least a few months of a “soft opening” to test and adjust the new system.
Nevertheless, if the system is still being built and ready to implemented, there’s no reason it couldn’t roll out on a trial basis in April 2021. It will just take Japan’s case numbers declining, vaccines starting to be rolled out, and trepidations easing. Although it’s only a few months away, a lot could change in a relatively short amount of time–we’re at the point where there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Moreover, we are certain–based upon our extensive experiences in the country–that Japan 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. It does seem like the scales have tipped away from that in the last month, though.
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While Japan’s reopening has occurred in fits and starts thus far, we remain optimistic that a further acceleration will occur. This is predicated upon the country’s economy being beholden to tourism and already in the midst of a worsening recession.
As a partial remedy to this, the Japanese government has attempted to revive its battered tourism industry by paying for residents to go on vacation within the country. Approximately 1.35 trillion yen was earmarked for the “Go To Travel” campaign to jumpstart domestic travel among Japanese residents. However, this is widely viewed as a stopgap measure, and that Japan’s travel-dependent economy will struggle until border restrictions are lifted.
To that end, Japanese leaders have expressed a desire to balance being diligent against spread with considering how to resume international travel. The number of travelers to Japan has plunged in recent months, with visitors down 99.9% year over year in the last several months.
Prior to this year, tourism to Japan has been surging, with several consecutive record setting years. Last year, Japan’s tourism numbers were up to a record 31.9 million visitors. In fact, every single year since 2013 has been a new record for inbound tourism to Japan.
Japan had just 8 million tourists when former Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was elected to his second term. In 7 years, that number more than quadrupled. Some places we like to visit that were once serene or frequently primarily by locals are now often overrun by tourists. (We see the irony in our complaint here.)
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.” The now-delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics were instrumental to these plans, with Japan’s inbound tourism target for 2020 being 40 million visitors at the start of the year.
Only ~4 million international travelers have 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.
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.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that the April 2021 reopening date is very much tentative, and almost every single past target date Japan has released has ended up being postponed. At this point, we do not believe much additional postponing for this plan can occur beyond April 2021 if the Tokyo Summer Olympics are still to be held as planned and with spectators.
However, even that’s an “if.” 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, or the Olympics won’t occur as planned. 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. If you’re aiming for sakura season (late March to early April 2021 in most popular spots), that’s definitely overzealous. Our recommendation at this point is the beginning of May 2021 at the absolute earliest. (Avoid Golden Week, which is April 29 to May 5, 2021.)
A better option would be planning for 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, but it’s a safer bet than sakura season. 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 there’s a vaccine? Are you assuaged at all by the relatively low number of cases in Japan? Is Japan’s mask culture reassuring to you? 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!