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 September 1, 2021.)
The troubled Tokyo Olympics are over and the Paralympics come to a close on September 5, 2021. While new infections have been decreasing, Japan’s medical system is still strained with record numbers of severe infections. Consequently, Japan is likely to extend the current state of emergency covering Tokyo and 20 of Japan’s 47 prefectures by another two weeks until September 26, 2021.
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.
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 November 2021, but now 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 14 days upon arrival. 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 are now over, having been held largely 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 current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has indicated intent 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 state of emergency. Decreased tourism plus falling exports, an increased consumption tax, reduced consumer spending, and growing national debt. Suffice to say, Japan’s economy is likewise a serious issue and inbound tourism was previously a bright spot.
Decisions about restrictions “should be made based on comparisons between medical risks and economic risks, and that should be communicated to the citizens,” Sumire Hirota, professor at Tokyo City University told Nikkei Asia. Experts have constantly communicated health risks, but economic risks have not been sufficiently explained to the public, according to Hirota.
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…
August was a record-breaking month for new cases in Japan, with a cumulative total of over 1.5 million cases as of September 1, 2021. It took 15 months for the cumulative case count to reach 500,000 after Japan’s first confirmed case in January of last year. It only took 26 days for the most recent 500,000 from early August until September 2021.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that Tokyo and Japan as a whole are now past-peak, with week-over-week declines in new cases (yellow bars) despite increased testing (blue line). Daily new infections nationwide peaked at nearly 26,000 but have fell to 17,000 at the end of August. The 7-day moving average is now at 20,000 per day, down from 23,000 just last week. While that’s good news, there’s still a record number of patients with severe cases and hospitals throughout Japan are overwhelmed.
We turn next to Japan’s vaccination progress. This continues to be a source of optimism, as Japan has now administered more than 125 million inoculations, up another ~25 million as compared to the start of last month. As of early September, over 80% of the elderly is fully vaccinated, 44% of the entire population is fully vaccinated, and over 55% of the population has received at least one shot.
Average daily inoculation numbers (see blue line on the graph above via Kyodo News) have been a roller coaster. This is due to supply shortages, which have caused some vaccination centers to cancel reservations and use a lottery system for younger residents.
Unfortunately, contaminants were found in unused doses of the Moderna vaccine late last month and the use of 1.63 million doses were suspended as a precaution. Two men who were administered a dose of suspended vaccine have since died, although it remains unknown if there is any causal relationship between the vaccination and their deaths.
This is not mentioned as irrelevant fear-mongering, but rather as it will undoubtedly lead to increased vaccine hesitancy among the Japanese public. That will likely doom already slim chances of inoculation-induced herd immunity. While demand for vaccinations currently far exceeds available supply, the scales will likely tip this month. As the United States, United Kingdom, and other countries have seen firsthand, precautionary suspensions undermine confidence in the vaccines and can stall progress. That, in turn, could be relevant when it comes to a border reopening down the road.
It should go without saying, but the new case and vaccination numbers have has no direct bearing on Japan’s border reopening, which is still months away at the earliest. Prior to the Olympics, our “best case scenario” was case numbers in Japan falling during the Olympics coupled with low numbers inside the Olympics bubble.
Under such a scenario, the Japanese public might be more receptive to reopening the borders since that large event–with participants from around the world–did not have negative ramifications. Unfortunately, the Delta variant had other ideas.
Instead, the Games were safely held without any significant outbreaks and no superspreader events–but amid a surge in cases coinciding with the Olympics. Whether this will give rise to further trepidations amongst an already wary and cautious Japanese public about reopening borders is an open question.
While the current wave shows signs of abating, case numbers are still incredibly high. 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. At this point, such baseline circumstances are probably at least a month away, if not more.
Another open question is the the politics of reopening. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has repeatedly stressed that the vaccination initiative is the light at the end of the tunnel: “The vaccination is crucial to suppress the pandemic…after that, we will come back to normal life.”
This sentiment mirrors that of other countries, including much of Europe and the United Kingdom. Perhaps most notably, there’s Singapore, which in recent months has signaled a strategic 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.
Singapore will now begin reopening this month, now that it has achieved an 80% vaccination rate. Once among the most “locked down” countries in the world, Singapore is moving a “life with the virus” approach that recognizes it becoming endemic.Singapore’s prime minister has repeatedly reiterated that it is not possible to bring cases down to zero even with long lockdowns. Other countries are contemplating similar policy changes, undoubtedly recognizing the same practical realities as Singapore.
To be clear, Japan is not one of those countries. While Japan’s measures have never been as stringent as Singapore, many of Japan’s decisions–or lack thereof–have been driven by fear of cultural outsiders and indecisiveness. Moreover, Suga’s ruling party faces a tough election this fall and he thus may not want to gamble his political future on loosened restrictions. The general election is now most likely to occur on October 17, 2021.
Suga’s approval rating has been underwater for months and stands at an abysmal 34%, so clearly the status quo of lifting and then reinstating state of emergencies and other restrictions is not a recipe for success. The aforementioned economic negative ramifications of the current course have been devastating and people are growing fatigued.
It thus makes sense that Suga has said Japan is approaching the light at the end of the tunnel and is preparing for normalcy. Banking on the vaccination drive’s success and reopening the economy may prove to be a winning strategy–especially if other countries are embracing it. 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.
On a related note, Japan launched its vaccine certificate program earlier this summer. This is Japan’s version of a vaccine passport, which includes the date of vaccination and its manufacturer, and use special paper to combat counterfeiting. Plans are to eventually offer them digitally via app.
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. This has been our position for months–long before Japan rolled out its vaccine passports.
Per Nikkei Asia, that predictable result is exactly what has happened, with only 23 countries currently honoring Japan’s vaccine passports due to Japan keeping its own borders closed. Some countries have said it’s unfair for Japan not to offer the same exemptions it is requesting for Japanese holders. Most Southeast Asian nations, plus the mainland United States and China, popular destinations for Japanese travelers, have not accepted Japan’s vaccine passport.
Unsurprisingly, Japan’s business community is unhappy. Corporate groups back expanding the use of vaccine passports, reciprocity, and the lifting of restrictions and quarantine requirements for returnees. Japanese health authorities previously told the Japan Times that 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 the current wave of new cases subsides and most of Japan’s adult population is fully vaccinated. That doesn’t rule out late Fall 2021, but it does feel like this year is slipping away.
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.
Ultimately, as bleak as it feels now for travel to Japan given the ongoing wave of new cases, things could change in a hurry once that turns around. As we’ve seen previously, new case counts fall just as quickly as they spike, and vaccinations continuing at a high rate should prevent Japan’s hospital system from becoming overwhelmed in the future. We’re seeing this occur in other places where vaccination rates are high; Singapore is a high profile example of strategy shifting markedly once a country recognizes realities.
The biggest difference is that Japan is more cautious and conservative, with a slow and methodical decision-making process that often embodies “analysis paralysis.” For those reasons alone, it may take several additional months even after Japan’s case numbers subside and vaccinations peak before borders begin reopening. Although we are tentatively planning our next trip during fall foliage season in late November 2021–our favorite time of year in Japan–we think there’s an over 75% chance that trip gets cancelled.
If you’re planning a visit, our recommendation at this point is late Fall 2021 at the absolute earliest. 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? 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!