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As Japan rolls out vaccine passports, numerous challenges still lie ahead

Syringes for coronavirus vaccinations are seen. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

TOKYO -- Japan faces a plethora of issues as its local municipalities nationwide have kickstarted accepting applications for so-called "vaccine passports" that publicly certify holders have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

    If presented upon arrival in a foreign country, holders of the passports will be exempted from quarantine measures. While the government expects the new travel documents will help resume Japanese business activities abroad, their effects are still limited as there are only seven countries that currently accept entry of vaccine passport holders. Domestic use of the passports, as demanded by Japanese business circles, also poses a number of issues such as how to prevent discrimination against those who are not inoculated.

    "It's an essential tool that can lead to resuming people's movements across borders," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato at a press conference on July 26, underscoring the significance of introducing the vaccine passport system, as the acceptance of applications for the documents got underway across Japan the same day.

    "Holders of the passports will be exempted from presenting documents proving their negative coronavirus test results upon entry, self-isolation and retesting after isolation, among other procedures," Kato said.

    So far, Italy, Austria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Poland, South Korea and Estonia recognize the passports as one of the necessary documents for travelers to be exempted from quarantine steps. In South Korea, travelers also need to present other documents to be spared quarantine, while Estonia does not isolate arrivals.

    The Japanese government began looking into introducing vaccine passports for its people in around mid-May. As other countries preceded in debating the system, the Japan Business Federation, the nation's most powerful business lobby commonly known as Keidanren, demanded that the government introduce the initiative. Some lawmakers in both the ruling and opposition parties, also expressed concerns for Japan lagging behind, with Seiji Maehara of the Democratic Party for the People saying, "Japan would become like the Galapagos Islands (meaning 'become detached from the world') when vaccine passports become worldwide standards in this global society."

    However, as the United States has maintained reservations about vaccine passports, with each state taking a different approach to the documents, some within the Japanese government were initially skeptical about the efficacy of the system, with one official asking, "Will it really become necessary internationally?"

    Yet once the European Union and other areas decided to adopt vaccine passports, the Japanese business community stepped up their calls for introducing the initiative, with one individual stating, "We'll get behind if we remain closed off to the world." A senior official of the prime minister's office explained, "We never know when vaccine passports will become a worldwide trend. We are introducing the system in preparation for that."

    The biggest challenge lying ahead is how many more countries will adopt vaccine passports. While there are many cases in which two countries mutually relax epidemic prevention measures for vaccine passport holders under mutual authentication agreements, Japan imposes significant restrictions on entrants as part of its COVID-19 countermeasures. Even if travelers are from the seven countries abroad that have adopted vaccine passports and have mutual agreement with Japan, arrivals still need to present their negative test certificates and undergo 14-day isolation at hotels and elsewhere. As it stands, Japan has to ask the seven countries to accept these strict entry conditions as they are, while requesting those countries to unilaterally relax their requirements.

    It was apparently this hurdle that lay behind the failure for Japan to reach an agreement with France regarding mutual authentication, even though they had been regarded highly likely to reach an accord. Furthermore, if Japan is to strike a deal with China, Japan may be required to accept the efficacy of inoculation certificates for Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines, which it has yet to authorize. "As coronavirus infections continue to spread in Japan, public opinion will not accept border control relaxation through mutual authentication," commented a Japanese government insider.

    How to utilize vaccine passports domestically is yet another issue requiring future investigation. While the Japanese business community is asking for the domestic use of vaccine passports, there are concerns that it could lead to discrimination against those who are not vaccinated if they are barred from entering shops, venues and other places. At a news conference on July 21, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato expressed a cautious stance, stating, "It's not appropriate if vaccine passports lead to forcible inoculations or unjust discrimination."

    Nevertheless, some within the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are voicing their expectations for the domestic use of vaccine passports. "It would brighten the public mood, instead of constraining them solely through requests to refrain from various activities," noted a former Cabinet minister, while a senior administration official remarked, "If the vaccination rate stagnates in the future, the domestic use of vaccine passports could motivate people to get inoculated."

    Takahide Kiuchi, executive economist at the Nomura Research Institute, pointed out, "No matter what the government might say, there will be a growing momentum in the private sector to capitalize on vaccine passports (toward the recovery of economic activities)." In some areas in Japan, people holding full vaccination certificates issued by municipal governments are already benefiting from various services, such as discounts on dining and drinking and relaxed conditions for entry to event venues and other places. The central government is also poised to discern the results of these initiatives in weighing the pros and cons of promoting the domestic use of vaccine passports.

    (Japanese original by Kazuhiko Hori, Political News Department)

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