When will Japan lift its travel ban and reopen for international tourists? We’re closely monitoring all advisories, the latest news, plans for the Tokyo Summer Olympics, and states of emergency. (Updated May 11, 2021.)
The latest update is mostly bad news. Japan’s central government has extended its state of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Aichi, and Fukuoka in an effort to curb a surge in cases through the beginning of June 2021. This will include restrictions on restaurants, bars, malls, karaoke, movie theaters, and theme parks–requesting many major businesses temporarily close through May 31, 2021. (Universal Studios Japan, for example, is closed.)
While this is not a “hard lockdown” like some other countries have imposed, the measures are more significant than past state of emergencies declared by Japan in the past year. The emergency declaration covers one-quarter of Japan’s population and about a third of its economy. It also comes just months until the Tokyo Summer Olympics begin. Despite this, the president of the Olympic’s organizing committee said that canceling the games is not being considered…
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. That was now one year ago.
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. At this point, we’re aiming for November 2021, and wouldn’t be surprised if that can’t happen, either.
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. Most foreigners, including those with residency in Japan or 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…
At this point, everything being done is with an eye on the Tokyo Olympics, due to start on July 23, 2021 following an unprecedented one-year postponement. While a cancellation is still possible if the situation worsens, all indications are that Japan plans to proceed with the Olympics and that it’s more a matter of how rather than if.
The heads of organizing bodies of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics have decided not to allow overseas spectators at the games. The Japanese government concluded that welcoming overseas spectators for the Tokyo Summer Olympics is not safe, due to fears that foreign travelers could lead to the spread. This is unsurprising, as Japan has been incredibly conservative with its borders and foreigners, scapegoating outsiders for transmission despite the border closure.
It should go without saying, but the Tokyo Olympics are a very big deal to Japan and the country’s economic prospects. Economists project that the absence of overseas spectators at the Olympics and Paralympics is likely to decrease overall consumer spending by 60 to 70 billion yen ($643 million) from the total of 207.9 billion yen projected for the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
While it’ll inflict damage on the tourism industry, public support in Japan for the Olympics has waned, as has also been the case for the government each time there has been a surge in new cases. Despite 60% of people in Japan wanting the Games cancelled, they are moving forward in large part due to sunk costs and the long-term value they’ll offer to Japan’s tourism marketing initiatives.
Beyond the Olympics, the economic reliance on international tourists is one big reason why Japan is expected to reopen its border later in 2021. 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.
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, 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. At some point, reopening to international visitors will be necessary for Japan’s economy.
Previously, our prediction for Japan’s reopening was that it hinged upon the status of the Olympics. If the Summer Games didn’t allow foreign spectators, Fall 2021 would be the earliest conceivable timeframe for Japan reopening its borders. The Olympics are now irrelevant for reopening purposes, as are current states of emergency.
What does matter is vaccinations. Japan has been slow thus far, which is frustrating given how pivotal of a role the vaccine will play in the eventual reopening. Japan lags behind many other countries in its vaccine rollout, with less than 3% of its population having received at least one shot. Part of this is out of the country’s control, as supply is limited. Another problem is lack of manpower to administer doses, with most of Japan’s vaccines sitting unused in freezers. However, we have some very good news on both fronts!
Local regulators will decide by May 20, 2021 whether to approve the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines–30 million doses of the latter have already been manufactured locally. Additionally, a large scale vaccination center with the capacity to inoculate 10,000 people per day will open in Tokyo on May 24, with another in Osaka coming online around the same time. Most significantly, Japan is set to receive 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine between May and June.
If the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines are approved as anticipated, Japan would have enough doses to vaccinate its population by late summer. Regardless, Japan has reached a deal with Pfizer that will increase its supply of the vaccine, allowing the country to have enough doses of that vaccine alone by the end of September 2021 to inoculate all eligible residents.
Japan aims to finish vaccinating its 36 million elderly residents by July 2021. Athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics may receive vaccines by late June 2021. After that, all residents age 16 and older will eligible for the free vaccine by sometime in July 2021.
We further suspect that more supply will open up for Japan as vaccine demand continues to slow in the United States and elsewhere. Infrastructure in administering the inoculations will be the biggest impediment to meeting those timelines; don’t be surprised if those targets each slip by a month or two. Obviously, this isn’t directly related to Japan’s reopening, but vaccinations are essentially the way out of this endless cycle.
Our expectation is that Japan will continue playing things cautiously and will not reopen on a widespread level this summer. That doesn’t rule out Fall 2021, especially with the current vaccine timeline, and the fact that tourists are crucial to Japan’s economy.
Some readers have questioned this optimism for Fall 2021, wondering why Japan would block Olympics attendees but allow them only a month or two later. The reasons are two-fold. First, the timing of vaccinations, with widespread availability more or less coinciding with the Olympics. That would dramatically ease the health burden and facilitate a loosening of restrictions, especially if Japan’s case trends follow every other country once ~50-60% of its population has been vaccinated.
Second, the Olympics will involve a lot of domestic traveling within Japan, plus athletes and support staff arriving in the country. That alone will pose risk and could cause another case spike. Add tens of thousands of foreign visitors, and that would be further exacerbated.
However, if those foreign visitors are shifted to a couple months later, they’re potentially less of a concern. It also doesn’t help that the Olympics are tremendously unpopular among the Japanese–adding foreign visitors to the mix is simply not palatable among the population.
Once Japan resumes reopening its borders, it’s expected to be a phased process starting with foreign residents, followed by 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.
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 in Tokyo specifically for overseas visitors to Japan as a way to take the pressure off local governments and avoid overburdening the Japanese health system.
However, it’s worth noting that this program began development last fall, and its debut was expected before vaccine rollout began. Although Japan is still in the process of developing this system, it may be superseded by something else: vaccine passports.
There have been recent headlines stating that Japan plans to introduce vaccine passports, following the lead of the European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and China. That certainly sounds promising. However, in actually reading these stories, it’s that certain businesses and trade groups are pushing for it, and various ministers have indicated that Japan will consider vaccine passports. Thinking about doing something is not the same as doing something. We’ve seen this time and time again from Japan.
Our expectation is that Japan will not end up utilizing vaccine passports among its population, but potentially will for arriving foreign tourists–and at a much later date than the EU or other countries that are planning on rolling out the digital health passports this summer. Japan was previously opposed to a vaccine passport system out of fears that it would discriminate those who cannot be inoculated, for example those with allergies, which is not an insignificant chunk of Japan’s population.
We still expect the aforementioned health safety “journey” to roll out eventually, but it’s possible vaccine passports for arriving tourists will replace or supplement that. Regardless, we expect either or both after the Tokyo Summer Olympics instead of before them. Japan would not block foreign spectators to the summer games but allow visitors for other purposes.
Ultimately, nothing is going to change until Japan’s case numbers see a sustained decline, which will likely require a substantial portion of Japan’s population to be vaccinated to achieve. Other countries that have resumed tourism for vaccinated foreigners before their own populations could be inoculated have faced understandable public backlash among locals; Japan is very sensitive to public trepidations, and will likely avoid a similar controversy.
As such, we recommend Americans, Canadians, and Europeans take a conservative approach when choosing dates for your next trip to Japan. Summer 2021 is now out the window. Our recommendation at this point is late Fall 2021 at the absolute earliest, which seems reasonable from both a vaccine rollout standpoint and is when domestic tourism starts slowing. Now that Japan has made the decision not to allow foreign spectators at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, the border is unlikely to reopen until then.
To end on an optimistic note, as bleak as it feels now for travel to Japan, things could change in a hurry after the Olympics end and vaccinations accelerate. We’re seeing this exact scenario play out in other places where vaccination rates are high; while Japan is more cautious and conservative, they’re also dependent upon tourism. Accordingly, we’re tentatively planning our next trip during 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; 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! If you’d like to be notified as soon as more details are announced by Japan, subscribe to our free email newsletter.
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? Thoughts on Japan’s decision not to allow foreign spectators at the Tokyo Summer Olympics? Are you assuaged at all by the relatively low number of cases in Japan? 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!