When will Japan lift its travel ban and reopen for international tourists? Will borders open in 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 November 29, 2021.)
New infections have been decreasing dramatically for the last two months, with new daily cases currently at their lowest level in over a year, and still falling. The state of emergency covering Tokyo and 18 other prefectures was lifted over a month ago, and cases continue to decline. With the country’s election in the rearview mirror, Japan has already set plans in motion to begin its reopening, further relaxing domestic travel restrictions. That is, until the new Omicron variant threw a monkey wrench into plans (more on that below in the ‘Omicron Update’ section).
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 three return trips since then, most recently for December 2021.
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…
We’re back with an end-of-month update for November 2021, and it’s not an optimistic one. Japan announced that it will close its borders to new entries by foreigners amid concern over the new Omicron variant, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowing to act fast to “avoid the worst-case scenario.”
The preventative barring of foreigners will take effect tomorrow and last until December 30, 2021. Kishida said closing Japan’s border is a “temporary measure until information about the Omicron variant becomes clear,” adding that “when dealing with an unknown risk, it’s best to take every precaution.”
Japan had just eased its ban on new entries by some foreigners on November 8, allowing in business travelers on short stays, students in study abroad programs, and participants in its technical internship program. All of these entries will now be barred until at least the end of December 2021.
Additionally, 14 countries and regions including Britain and Germany will be added to a list of places from which returning Japanese citizens and foreign residents will be subject to stricter quarantine requirements.
Japan will also lower its daily limit for the number of people arriving from 5,000 back down to 3,500. Returning Japanese citizens and foreign residents will be required to isolate for two weeks, regardless of whether they are fully vaccinated.
The WHO has designated the Omicron strain a “variant of concern,” warning it has a large number of mutations. This suggests that Omicron may be highly transmissible, pose an increased risk of reinfection, or be able to evade existing vaccines. However, much is still unknown about the Omicron variant, as it was detected early and there are still few documented instances of its transmission.
Omicron could turn out to be nothing at all, as has been the case with several past variants of concern. At the other end of the spectrum, Omicron could be more transmissible but less lethal, posing a lower overall risk to the population. It could also be akin to the Delta variant, which caused skyrocketing numbers over the summer in many locations. Very little is certain about Omicron at this point, so it doesn’t accomplish much to fan the flames on fear or optimism. It’s too early for either.
Regardless, this obviously amounts to a setback in Japan’s reopening progress. While tourists hadn’t yet been allowed to reenter Japan, the country will still scale up slowly when reopening does resume–and this is at least a month of lost time. Even assuming the absolute best case scenario, no foreign tourists will be entering Japan until sometime in 2022.
Beyond that, there’s the concern that regardless of what happens with Omicron, this step backwards will vindicate those within Japan who warned of reopening or fear-mongered foreigners. Even prior to Omicron, case numbers were already on the rise throughout Europe and North America. If Japan’s numbers remain low through the holiday season, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where that’s attributed to the border closure–even though Japan’s numbers have been low for several months now because the country was already hit by the worst of the Delta wave.
Before Omicron, there was other cause for renewed pessimism. When reopening to business travelers earlier in November, representatives of Japan’s government indicated that there was a plan to gradually reopen to tourism, starting towards the end of this year the country would “consider resuming the acceptance of tour groups by reviewing within this year how their activities can be controlled and monitored.”
As more came out about that, it was revealed that the plan was to do a “test run” with select domestic travel agencies that would operate a closely-screened trial of small-scale groups for overseas tourists, who will be required to arrive by air and travel exclusively on dedicated tour buses that will be forbidden from stopping in any major cities, and only visit more rural and less populated areas. This was expected to be the first phase of reopening for tourists, beginning in December 2021 and continuing through early 2022. Obviously, this is not what most people planning a trip to Japan probably have in mind for their visit.
Prior to all of this, the biggest recent development is that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s coalition kept a comfortable majority in parliamentary election. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito together won 293 seats, which is well above the majority of 233 needed in the 465-member lower house of Japan’s two-chamber Diet.
The LDP alone won 261 seats, giving it an absolute majority to control all parliamentary committees and legislation. For reopening purposes, this is significant as it bolsters the ruling party’s plans for reviving Japan’s sagging economy while normalizing social activity. To that end, travel restrictions within Japan are already being lifted, with an eye towards loosening more in the future to help in aiding the recovery.
With that said, there is one prolific leader who continues to make waves and suggest the opposite approach: Shigeru Omi, an immunologist who heads the government pandemic response subcommittee. At a conference last week, he warned against loosening reopening too quickly because “other viruses come in if you suddenly loosen border control measures.”
Shigeru Omi has made headlines repeatedly for ‘sky is falling’ predictions and extremely cautious recommendations, many of which have been wrong or ignored. If his advice were always heeded, the Olympics would have been cancelled, schools wouldn’t have reopened, and many businesses would still be shuttered.
It should be of absolutely no surprise that Shigeru Omi is against a reopening or exit plan given his past statements. There’s also the matter of self-interest, as life returning to normal would marginalize his influence. In short, what he says has little bearing on Japan’s reopening, one way or the other.
It should also come as no surprise that similar beliefs are held by a broad swath of the public, especially older Japanese individuals. Compared to most highly industrialized nations, Japan remains relatively insular and apprehensive of outsiders. For better or worse, it’s a culturally conservative country–a characteristic that is often valued by visitors. Not so much in the last year-plus, as this has been reflected in policy-making; Japan has vilified and scapegoated foreigners and had an overly aggressive approach to its borders.
That’s one of the reasons we previously cautioned against expecting any reopening announcements prior to Japan’s election. For many voters, reopening was simply a politically unpalatable policy. However, another thing that’s politically unpalatable is a struggling economy. Japan has lagged behind economically, seeing slower recovery than the United States and other counterparts that have more aggressively reopened. The point is that the general public often holds internally incompatible beliefs or desires, which cannot be reconciled in making public policy.
Based on public statements and post-election moves thus far, the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party recognize this and are focusing on rebuilding the economy. Speaking on NHK, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stated that his top priority was formulating new economic measures and implementing these goals in a supplementary budget.
“With the results of this election, we will swiftly put together economic measures,” Kishida said. The major pillars of the economic measures will be to provide benefits for businesses and households that have been hit especially hard. The government will also take measures to stimulate and jump-start the economy.
The ruling government is doing so with an eye towards next summer, when the upper house election will almost certainly be decided on the basis of how well the economy has recovered. Even officials in the LDP have conceded that accumulating achievements and quantifiable results will be necessary for success.
Among the business community and economists, there’s a belief that the government will also reform border controls. “While international travel won’t make or break the economy, it’s an easy-to-observe metric that may shape public sentiment,” Kenneth Mori McElwain of the University of Tokyo told Reuters.
In the meantime, Japan is likely 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. This comes amidst announcements by Japan Airlines and ANA (among other companies) that they will be forced to reduce their workforces due to record losses.
Japan is also maintaining its goal of attracting 60 million foreign visitors 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.
Some of 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.
As indicated above, reopening will be a phased approach starting with students, business travelers, and certain training programs. 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, whether there’s another significant spike in cases, and if Omicron amounts to anything. As noted above, Japan is currently preparing hospitals for a “sixth wave” of cases resulting from family gatherings. If that wave materializes, it could delay reopening plans. If it doesn’t, it could accelerate them.
Accordingly, it’s our view that a reopening in February 2022 is plausible if things go well and Omicron isn’t a serious setback. Probably more realistic than April 2022 given normal visitor volume for each of those months. If there’s another wave or Omicron causes significant spikes in other countries, reopening might get pushed back to Summer 2022.
Ultimately, Japan reopening to tourists as part of its phased approach in early 2022 is just a guess–and we’ve made several overly optimistic guesses that have turned out to be wrong. With Omicron now in the picture and Japan pumping the brakes until at least December 30, it’s completely certain that Japan will not reopen in 2021.
Barring something catastrophic, international travel to Japan still 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. Japan cannot stay its present course with devastating economic consequences, and its government recognizes this. 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 and alerts:
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!