When will Japan lift its travel ban and reopen for international tourists? Will borders open in late 2021 or early 2022? These are two common questions among those planning trips to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and beyond. We monitor foreign visitor advisories, news, states of emergency, vaccine passports, and inoculation progress for answers. (Updated October 5, 2021.)
New infections have been decreasing dramatically for over the last month, with new daily cases currently at their lowest level in almost a year–since last November–and still falling. Consequently, the Japanese government lifted the state of emergency covering Tokyo and 18 other prefectures, as well as the quasi-state of emergency everywhere else. This marks the first time since April 4 that none of Japan’s 47 prefectures have been under a quasi or full state of emergency.
The good news doesn’t end there, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. 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 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.
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. We are currently aiming for December 2021, but expect that trip to be cancelled.
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 10 days upon arrival. (This was just shortened from 14 days at the end of last month.) Most foreigners, including those 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 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are both over, having been held behind closed doors and without the normal surge of tourism the Games generate. 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, some indirect economic advantages of the Olympics remain. The Games exposed and highlighted Japan to a global audience for two weeks, which normally has a high residual value for the travel & tourism sectors. It’s unclear whether the Tokyo Summer Olympics will prove as valuable to Japan’s tourism marketing initiatives, as fewer viewers at home were likely enticed to book international trips while watching the travelogue segments.
Beyond the Olympics, the economic benefits of international tourists is one big reason why Japan is expected to reopen its border. Boosting tourism was core to former Prime Minister Abe’s economic revitalization, and both subsequent prime ministers have indicated their intentions to maintain continuity with those 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 closures and restrictions. Decreased tourism plus falling exports, an increased consumption tax, reduced consumer spending, and growing national debt. Suffice to say, Japan’s economy has serious issues and inbound tourism was previously a bright spot.
In other words, reopening to international visitors will be important to the health of Japan’s consumption-driven economy at some point in the not too distant future. However, a necessary prerequisite is the country’s physical health. With that in mind, let’s take a look at current case numbers and vaccinations…
October 2021 Update
After a couple of tough months, we’re finally back with an update on Japan’s reopening that’s full of optimistic news. First, the case rate has plummeted over the course of the last month. New daily infections are now under 1,000 after peaking at above 25,000 in August. In fact, daily numbers in Japan have hit their lowest level since the beginning of last November.
With that said, concerns remain over the strain on Japan’s medical system as the number of hospitalized patients haven’t decreased at as quick of a pace. Nevertheless, there’s enough optimism over the improvements for Japan to lift its state of emergency and begin moving forward with plans to restart its battered economy (more on that below).
We turn next to Japan’s vaccination progress. This continues to be a source of optimism, as Japan has now administered more than 165 million inoculations, up another ~30 million as compared to the start of last month, which actually slightly outpaces the total from August to September.
As of early October, 62% of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated, and over 72% of the population has received at least one shot (graph above via Kyodo News). Despite the slow initial rollout, Japan has now passed the vaccination rates in the United States and much of Europe with a steady and consistent campaign.
It should go without saying, but the new case and vaccination numbers have no direct bearing on Japan’s border reopening. Japan is unlikely to drop its travel ban until cases are at a sustained low level and its healthcare system is not at all strained.
The good news is that Japan is nearing such baseline circumstances and, accordingly, the groundwork is being laid for loosening travel restrictions. Let’s take a look at some of the latest changes as of early October 2021…
Most notably, newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has indicated that in addition to managing the health crisis, his top priority is reviving Japan’s sagging economy while normalizing social activity. Kishida replaces Suga as the party’s leader, and is viewed as the choice for continuity and stability, as opposed to change. Kishida is fairly moderate, but is bringing younger and fresh faces to his cabinet.
Of the candidates who had a realistic shot of winning, Kishida arguably presents the best opportunity for a border reopening–even though that never occurred under Suga. Nothing is likely to happen until after Japan’s October 31, 2021 general election, but there’s positive momentum. Travel restrictions within Japan are already being lifted, with an eye towards loosening more in the future to help in restarting the economy.
Beginning in November 2021, the Japanese government plans to relax restrictions on domestic travel, large-scale events, and serving alcohol once most of the eligible population is fully vaccinated. The government has determined that if people are either fully vaccinated or can prove that they’ve tested negative, the risk of spread is low, allowing for life to largely return to normal.
To that end, the Japan Tourism Agency indicated that it will conduct a trial of vaccine certificates and negative test results with 38 group tours. Two weeks after the trips, the agency will contact participants to determine whether they’ve since tested positive. The government’s goal is for the smooth resumption of travel as it hopes to achieve a balance between transmission safety measures and a return to daily life.
Similarly, Japan’s new tourism minister is looking to resume the government’s “Go To Travel” subsidy program for the promotion of domestic tourism. “It is a program crucial for the recovery of tourist sites and local economies,” said Tetsuo Saito. Only one day after assuming his ministerial post, Saito said he has a mandate from new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to help the struggling tourism sector while maintaining safety measures.
Moreover, Saito said the government will uphold its goal of attracting 60 million foreign visitors to Japan by 2030. Additionally, the Japan National Tourism Organization has set 2024 as its goal for recovering to 2019 international travel levels. Both of these statements are reassuring given the current border closures, and indicate that Japan will unwind its travel ban in months, not years.
This sentiment mirrors that of other countries, including much of Europe and the United States. Perhaps most notably, there’s New Zealand, which just announced a shift from suppressing all outbreaks and new cases to “living with the virus.” The country has seemingly acknowledged that chasing zero cases is a fool’s errand, as the disease will become endemic.
Other countries that have been among the most “locked down” in the world have adopted similar strategies. The increased momentum towards a “life with the virus” approach recognizes it becoming endemic. Other countries are contemplating similar policy changes, undoubtedly recognizing the same practical realities.
Japan’s recent moves suggest it is also moving in that direction. While Japan’s measures have never been as stringent as New Zealand, many of Japan’s decisions–or lack thereof–have been driven by fear of cultural outsiders, the unknown, and indecisiveness. 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.
Japan launched its vaccine certificate program, which is the country’s version of a vaccine passport. It includes the date of vaccination and its manufacturer, and use special paper to combat counterfeiting. Japan leaders have stated that they are exploring reciprocal moves for incoming travelers as part of a push to revive international travel.
With cases now falling and the effectiveness of ongoing travel bans being called into question more frequently, the Japan Business Federation and other organizations are calling on the country to loosen travel restrictions as of Fall 2021. Their desire is to normalize the country’s economic activity now that vaccinations have made steady progress. The business lobby has called for a quarantine-free travel lane for vaccinated arrivals and reciprocal vaccine passport agreements so more countries will accept Japan’s certificate.
Once Japan resumes reopening its borders, it’s expected to be a phased process starting with 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.
One component of last year’s version of Japan’s reopening program was that it was slated to begin rolling out in the winter. At the time, the goal was to gradually resume tourism with a soft launch during the off-season when travel volume was lower. From there, it would scale up for spring and summer, when demand naturally increases.
This is noteworthy because we’ve seen many readers comment with the expectation that Japan will reopen right before the sakura season in Spring 2022. While anything is possible, we are skeptical of that. Based on the totality of the circumstances and Japan’s measured and methodical (to use charitable terms) approach, we highly doubt Japan will simply open the floodgates for its busiest travel season of the year. More likely, it’ll be a pilot program and/or slow launch targeting a time when travel is lower.
When is an open question, and largely dependent upon how the domestic travel resumption goes and whether there’s another wave of cases. In our view, January or February 2022 are both plausible–and probably more realistic than April 2022 given normal visitor volume for each of those months.
Ultimately, Japan reopening in early 2022 is just a guess–and we’ve made several overly optimistic guesses that have turned out to be wrong. There’s also still the vague possibility that things could change in a hurry once the October 31, 2021 election is in the rearview mirror. We previously had a trip planned in November, and rather than canceling it altogether, we’ve moved it to December 2021 with the sliver of hope that’ll be feasible–but we highly doubt it.
To end on a positive note, barring something catastrophic, international travel to Japan seems likely by Spring 2022. Even though Japan is cautious and conservative, with a slow and belabored decision-making process that often embodies “analysis paralysis,” the tides seem to be turning. If you’re planning a visit, our recommendation at this point is to target the 2022 cherry blossom season. Not because we think that is precisely when Japan will reopen, but because we anticipate the reopening to have scaled up and smoothed out by that point–and because that’s simply a good time to visit Japan.
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? Are you concerned by the spiking number of cases in Japan? Think rising vaccinations plus the need to adapt and live with the virus will outweigh that when it comes to Japan’s reopening plans? 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!