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Decision to halt all business travel to Japan an abrupt about-face for Suga administration

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga prepares for a news conference after announcing the addition of seven prefectures to the latest state or emergency over the coronavirus, at the prime minister's office on Jan. 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- To curb the spread of the coronavirus, the government announced on Jan. 13 that it will suspend entry of all nonresident foreign nationals including business travelers from Taiwan, South Korea, China and eight other designated countries.

    Previously, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had opted to retain business travel, indicating that people from designated countries and regions would be allowed into Japan as long as no variant strains of the coronavirus were confirmed in those places. His administration has now performed an about-face, but the decision was criticized as coming too late.

    Suga announced the suspension of business travel from Taiwan and the 10 countries at a Jan. 13 news conference, stating, "To eliminate all risks preventively, I have decided to temporarily suspend entry while the declaration of the state of emergency remains in effect." His announcement was followed by a succession of critical posts from internet users saying the action was "late" and that the prime minister was "handling the situation reactively" instead of proactively.

    The now temporarily suspended business travel consisted of a "residence track" and a "business track" that enabled business travelers and technical intern trainees from China, South Korea, Vietnam and other countries to travel between their countries and Japan.

    The "business track" applied to four countries: China, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, while the "residence track" applied to these countries and also included Taiwan, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar.

    On Dec. 28, 2020, following the discovery of a new and reportedly very infective coronavirus strain in countries including the U.K., the government announced that it would in principle suspend new entries into the country by foreign nationals. But it continued to allow business travel under the two tracks system.

    Why didn't the government also suspend business travel at that time?

    Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, second from right at rear, answers questions from reporters following the announcement of a state of emergency for seven additional prefectures over the coronavirus, at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Jan. 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    One member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who previously served in a senior government post surmised, "Mr. Suga didn't want to give up on accepting technical trainees and was accordingly reluctant to go ahead with suspension."

    Accepting technical trainees was a policy advanced under the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It was also a pillar of economic revitalization to alleviate Japan's labor shortage, and figures in the business world and agriculture industry made strong requests for the measure's continuation. Besides this, it was Suga, during his tenure as chief Cabinet secretary, who led the way in getting the trainees accepted.

    Technical trainees were being accepted into Japan under the residence track on condition that they remained isolated for 14 days after arriving in Japan. Vietnam supplies the highest number of technical trainees to Japan, followed by China. LDP Secretary-General Toshiniro Nikai, who supports the Suga administration, has strong connections with both countries. Some within the LDP have said that Suga may have focused on retaining business travel out of consideration for Nikai, who was reluctant to suspend it.

    It has also been pointed out that the prime minister is strongly hoping that the Olympic and Paralympic Games go ahead this summer.

    When it comes time to accept athletes into Japan for the games, the government is considering applying the business-track entry scheme, which exempts people from quarantine requirements following their arrival if they meet certain conditions such as submitting a plan of their activities. But if the business track is temporarily suspended, it could affect Japan's preparations to accept athletes. Furthermore, it could heighten concerns about staging the games in Tokyo.

    After coronavirus infections began spreading in Japan, there were suggestions to suspend business travel in line with the issuing of a state of emergency. But while the government did declare a state of emergency for the four prefectures of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama, it didn't suspend business travel.

    On Jan. 8, the day after a state of emergency was announced, Suga said on a TV Asahi program, "We will go ahead with an immediate suspension if there is even one case of the virus variant in the community (of the country in question)," and asked for understanding regarding the continuation of business trips. Additionally, the government announced that Japan would require proof of a negative coronavirus test from business travelers within 72 hours of departure, and a test at the airport in Japan. This was effectively taken as a declaration of intent -- that Japan would continue business trips even if it meant imposing tough conditions.

    But discontent began to surface within the LDP in the form of calls for stronger border protection measures, which put the brakes on the prime minister's moves.

    Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks at a news conference after announcing the addition of seven prefectures to the latest state or emergency over the coronavirus, at the prime minister's office on Jan. 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    In a meeting of the LDP's Foreign Affairs Division on Jan. 12, one participant commented, "When I returned to my hometown over the three-day weekend, I encountered a stream of criticism, with people asking, 'Why are foreigners being allowed into the country when we are limiting ourselves?'" Masahisa Sato, director of the Foreign Affairs Division, commented, "Rather than stopping at the water's edge, we're being submerged. To receive understanding from the public, business travel should be temporarily suspended."

    With criticism that Japan's coronavirus countermeasures were reactive rather than proactive, and support for Suga's Cabinet plummeting, there was no way to avoid quickly mounting criticism over the continuation of business travel.

    Regarding the suspension of business travel in a news conference on Sept. 13, Suga stated, "It was not a case of the decision being delayed with the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in mind." When it came the reason for the suspension, he said, "A cluster of a variant strain of the virus from someone who returned from the U.K. was confirmed, and then a new variant strain was confirmed from someone who returned from Brazil, and due to a spate of such cases unease among the public has been increasing."

    But neither the U.K. nor Brazil are eligible for the business travel program in the first place. While making infections with variant strains in the designated regions a condition for halting business travel, the Suga administration decided to halt business travel on the grounds of "the public's unease."

    One high-ranking government official commented, "With the state of infections in Japan remaining serious, it would be a further serious matter if a variant strain entered," while a figure close to the prime minister's office divulged, "The media has been reporting more and more on the variant strain, and the public sense of fear has risen more than we had imagined."

    However, the government's disjointed response exposes the difficult position the prime minister is in as public backlash continues. Meanwhile, the sudden change of course has led those within the government to express their bewilderment.

    "Why did the suspension go ahead? I want you to ask the prime minister that," one official from a related government ministry commented.

    (Japanese original by Jun Aoki, Political News Department)

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