From March, the government will review its coronavirus border policies. Limits on arrivals of foreign nationals, centered on foreign students and business travelers, will be eased. It is expected that the cap on arrivals will be raised to 5,000 people per day.
In dealing with the emergence of the coronavirus's omicron variant, new entries by foreign nationals have as a general rule been banned since the end of November 2021. At the stage when the new variant's characteristics were unknown, this was an understandable response.
Border measures are a means to slow the virus's spread into the country, and the rules were drawn up with an aim to buy time to prepare Japan's medical system. But effect of these measures appears limited under the current circumstances, where infections have spread widely across the country. Conversely, the damage it has done to international relations has become more noticeable.
At a New Year's press conference, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he will "transfer focus to domestic prevention measures." But still the harsh border measures continued. Meanwhile, the government was slow to respond to infections at U.S. military bases, which became a hole in its border control policy. It cannot be denied that Japan's measures lacked consistency across the board.
Calls to review entry restrictions have been erupting from the business world. Masakazu Tokura, chairman of the Japanese Business Association (Keidanren), has criticized the government's response as reminiscent of the "sakoku" isolationist policies during the Edo period (1603-1867). The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan and the European Business Council in Japan, meanwhile, released a joint statement calling for Japan to "quickly adopt a science-based entry policy."
Even more serious is the situation faced by young people wishing to study in Japan. As of the end of 2021, there were around 150,000 foreign students with residency certification who could not enter Japan. Many have been forced to wait close to two years.
Movements including protests and online petitions have also been started by people seeking to enter Japan. Some young people have been unable to wait and switched their study destinations to other countries including South Korea. A number of foreign universities have also given up on sending students to Japan.
When it comes to reopening the borders, there will be a need to speed up processing to meet the start of the new school year in spring.
The World Health Organization has called on its member countries to ease or remove border controls on the basis that they are not effective. With countries the world over reopening one after another, Japan's guarded approach stands out.
To ease entry restrictions in the future, improvements are needed in the structural outlay for airport quarantine and health checks, among other measures. This will also be of use in preparing for future coronavirus variants or new infectious diseases.
While gaining the understanding of the people, the government must expedite efforts to create a system that ensures both that infections are kept down, and that Japan is an open country.