When Will Japan Reopen? September Update

A common question we’re receiving is when will Japan reopen and allow international tourists to enter? As a planning site with strategy for visiting Kyoto, Tokyo, and beyond, we’re closely monitoring all travel advisories and updates. (Updated September 23, 2020.)

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 6 months, 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 159 countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, 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…

A gradual reopening of Japan’s borders is now underway. Foreign residents are finally allowed to reenter Japan, albeit with onerous quarantine and testing requirements. This follows mounting criticism from the expatriate community that the ban was discriminatory.

Reopening Japan’s borders to foreign residents is step one, with the plan to ease restrictions on business travelers and students next, followed by tourists. This process has been fairly slow thus far. To an extent, this is understandable–we’re in the midst of a global crisis and uncertainty remains. Health and safety are paramount priorities.

However, in following the unfortunate saga of the foreign residents it seems that Japan’s decisions–or lack thereof–are being driven by fear of cultural outsiders and indecisiveness more so than anything else. It would be one thing if government decisions consistently prioritized health and safety above all else, but that has not been the case.

While the process of allowing foreign residents to reenter Japan was long and drawn out, we have a promising update as of September 23, 2020! (If you’d like to be notified as soon as more details are announced by Japan, subscribe to our free email newsletter.)

NHK is reporting that the government of Japan may ease restrictions on entry into the country by people from around the world beginning in October 2020. Government sources have revealed plans to allow entry to foreigners for the medium and long term “regardless of where they come from.”

This latest development almost certainly does not apply to anyone reading this, as it does not cover tourists. Additionally, it requires both a negative PCR test result and a 14-day self quarantine.

However, it should be viewed as good news and significant process for a couple of reasons. First, it’s without regard to country of origin; previously, Japan was working with only a handful of countries in Asia and indicated that harder-hit countries (like the United States) would be the last to reenter Japan.

Second, 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–and up until this development, it seemed like Japan’s reopening might not start “walking” until 2021.

In addition to this news, we finally have an update on the development of efficient and large-scale airport testing. Japan is constructing facilities at Haneda, Narita, and Kansai Airports in Tokyo and Osaka. The original goal was to open these facilities by this month and conduct 10,000 PCR tests each day. The new plan is to reach a daily testing capacity at international airports of about 20,000 per day by November 2020.

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, part of a gigantic emergency relief and stimulus package that will exceed 200 trillion yen.

Beyond the “Go to Travel” campaign, Japanese leaders have discussed other plans to jump-start the world’s third-largest economy. Officials have indicated 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 plansThis 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.

Thus far, only 4 million international travelers have visited Japan in 2020. The last 6 months have seen all-time record lows with only 1,700 to 2,900 international visitors per month, putting Japan on pace for under 5 million tourists in 2020 unless something changes this fall. 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 not looking promising. 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.

It thus stands to reason that Japan will prioritize bringing back tourists, the question remains: when?

When Japan will reopen to leisure travelers from the United States, Canada, and Europe remains to be seen. If we had to guess–and that’s exactly what this is, a guess–we’d predict that Japan will not reopen to most visitors from the above countries before late 2020.

The job news is that our previous prediction was Spring 20201. In watching NHK Newsline and reading Japanese newspapers every single day for developments, we’ve noticed a change in tone as of late September 2020. Under new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, reopening has taken on a renewed emphasis.

Of course, it’s not just about Japan scaling up testing or “needing” more tourists. Questions still remain about how tourism will resume, and whether certain countries will be prioritized (even though that doesn’t appear to be the case with business travelers or international students).

It’s possible that other countries will need to demonstrate containment or downward trends in new cases for a period of time before Japan allows their residents to enter. If this happens, Americans are likely to be one of the lowest-priority countries due to our significant woes in controlling spread and highly-visible controversy over mask-wearing. In that scenario, the best case for visitors to Japan from the United States likely is Spring 2021.

As such, we currently only have tentative plans to visit Japan. Our original hope was to get back for fall colors season, but that now seems like a lost cause. Nevertheless, we still anxiously watch and read the news every single day, hoping for a break-through so we can book a last-minute trip.

More realistically, we’re now aiming to return to Japan for sakura season in Spring 2021. Delaying is not the worst thing, as we’re still not entirely comfortable taking a long-haul flight, being on public transportation, or dining in cramped ramen shops (one of our favorite things to do).

With all of that said, we definitely feel more comfortable out in public in Japan than the United States. Even with the denser population, popularity of mass transit, and relatively lax restrictions, Japan has seen far fewer cases and hospitalizations than other nations. There have been a range of theories as to how Japan beat the average, with the various theories having varying degrees of merit.

A big factor in Japan’s success is undoubtedly the widespread use of face masks, which were culturally commonplace for sick individuals in Japan to wear even prior to this. Japan’s more courteous society–devoid of rampant and misplaced notions about individuality, personal freedoms, liberties, or whatever–is definitely more attractive during a pandemic. (We’ll spare you that soapbox.)

That doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily visit Japan if we’re somehow presented with the opportunity this winter or next spring–there are still a lot of concerns and downsides–but it is one big check on the upsides column. 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.

Your Thoughts

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!

41 replies
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  1. JohnB
    JohnB says:

    I have a trip planned to Japan in March 2021. Lucky for me, it is booked with miles and points. So if everything falls apart, I can easily cancel with minimal cost. But I really want to go. We went in March 2019, and it was one of our best trips. Our itin. is 3 nights Tokyo, 2 nights Kanazawa, 4 nights Kyoto, and 4 nights Osaka. Our trip is mostly to see places we haven’t seen and a few new places.

    I agree that masks make a difference. The Japanese religiously wear masks, all year round. Which makes me think that if masks had been mandated in the US, our death toll would have been less. I am not worried about the flights, as we always fly to Asia in business class if not first class.

    The Japanese have to come to a reckoning with opening the country, if they want the Olympics to happen. Could the Olympics be done like the NBA is doing in Disney World? Sure! But creating a bubble in Tokyo will not be easy. The venues are all over the Tokyo area. But I think the go, no go for the Olympics is the signal that there will be a normalization in travel to Japan. People forget that Taiwan and New Zealand have been so successful in taming Covid-19 because they are island nations, like Japan. I don’t think the Japanese want to give that advantage up.

    Reply
  2. denzel flores
    denzel flores says:

    Booked a ticket with my girlfriend for late december 2020 should we be optimistic about us being able to travel from Canada?

    Reply
    • Chase
      Chase says:

      I love Japan and am dying to return there, I am currently stay in Korea.

      Knowing what I know about COVID-19 and Japanese society and government, unfortunately, I wouldn’t be optimistic about being able to come in December.

      Korea is my second favorite Asian country behind Japan. Although nothing can replace Japan, I have to admit Korea is pretty awesome.

      Consider coming here maybe?

      Reply
  3. Dan
    Dan says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and articulate post! It’s hard to find information that addresses exactly this question. My fiance and I (she’s in Japan currently) are trying to navigate this tricky situation so I appreciate your insight.

    Reply
  4. Suzanne Lieberman
    Suzanne Lieberman says:

    Thank you for the thorough update, Tom!! This makes me a bit more optimistic. I am still going to try for December, and am hopeful to make it by March.

    Reply
  5. Raul Aldape
    Raul Aldape says:

    Thank you for this! I have a flight for late Mar 2021, I was planning a trip since Dec 2019/Jan 2020 and then when the price drop happened, I booked! Hope it wasn’t a mistake. I’d love to see the cherry blossoms and it’d be nice to be there with so little tourists!

    Reply
  6. Erika
    Erika says:

    I have been curious about this for awhile now, thanks for the updates. We had our first trip to Japan booked for March-April 2020, that obviously had to be canceled and have been looking into going Spring 2021. Trying to remain optimistic, as this was supposed to be our last big trip before we start growing our family and that we can only put off for so long…

    Reply
  7. Mark
    Mark says:

    Have my trip booked for late December. I was planning to propose to my girlfriend over there. I’ll be devastated if we can’t go.

    Reply
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