Why Japan is Unlikely to Reopen Borders Until 2022

Why Japan is Unlikely to Reopen Borders Until 2022


When Will Japan Reopen Its Borders for International Visitors (and not just Olympic athletes and coaches)? Hardly a week goes by when we don't get this question from a TravelSort Client. Unfortunately, the bad news for those clients who have trips planned for Fall 2021 is that Japan is highly unlikely to reopen its borders until sometime in 2022.

1. Slow Vaccine Roll-out

There are several reasons, but let's start with Japan's vaccination effort, which is far behind those of the UK, US, Canada, and most other OECD countries apart from Australia and New Zealand, which are also off to a very slow start. In Japan, only nurses and doctors can vaccinate patients, so that has slowed down the rollout, in addition to delays in the approval process and procurement process described below. Japan had hoped to fully vaccinate all elderly citizens 65 years and older by the end of July 2021, but as of the end of June, only ~58% had received their first vaccine dose and only 24% were fully vaccinated.

Japan's Slow Vaccine Rollout Means Japan Unlikely to Reopen Until 2022 for Tourism


2. Slow Vaccine Approval Process

One could ask why Japan was so slow to start inoculating citizens with proven vaccines, especially given that the government has been doggedly focused on hosting the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Japan's vaccine regulatory approval process requires studies that include Japanese, so there were several months of delay due to the requirement by Japanese health authorities to have domestic trials in Japan.


3. Delays with Vaccine Imports

Since none of the vaccines are made in Japan, Japan faced delays in getting its contracted for Pfizer-BioNtech doses, including production delays and EU halt on exports. Only 28 million doses had been imported by the end of April 2021, even though Japan purchased nearly 200 million doses.


4. The Delta Variant

The Delta variant is far more transmissible than the original viral strains, which threatens Japan and other countries and areas that aren't highly vaccinated. Delta variant infections accounted for about 30% of all new COVID-19 cases by the end of June 2021 in the Kanto region of Japan that includes Tokyo.

Because of the rising number of cases in Tokyo and other areas, due in part to the Delta variant, in combination with the population's vulnerability since so many aren't yet fully vaccinated, Japan hasn't yet been willing to open its borders even to fully vaccinated visitors. There is a certain hypocrisy, however, in Japan seeking a waiver from quarantine for its own fully vaccinated citizens to be able to visit other countries, something that Singapore and Israel have been right to balk at.


5. Japan's Conservatism Vis-a-Vis Foreigners

When Japan closed its borders in April 2020, it barred foreign permanent residents from returning to Japan, if they left the country for any reason, and this persisted until September 2020. Japanese citizens were still able to return to the country during this period. To our knowledge, no other OECD country instituted a similar measure; border closures affected citizens and permanent residents equally. The discrepancy is not a coincidence.The government's disparate treatment of citizens vs. permanent residents was clearly not based on science; prejudice rears its ugly head. It also explains the government's efforts to procure quarantine-free travel abroad for its vaccinated citizens while not allowing vaccinated citizens of other countries into Japan. But the Olympics, you say? That's a case where the contract Japan signed with the International Olympic Committee provides that only the IOC can cancel the Games. At best, Japan would have to persuade the IOC to cancel the games, which the IOC has been loath to do.


Bottom Line

While it's always possible that the current vaccination roll-out will speed up and Japan could open its borders to at least vaccinated visitors, we'd frankly be shocked if it occurs by the end of 2021 given the current state of affairs. The combination of delayed vaccinations with fast spreading variants makes it highly unlikely that most international visitors who don't fall under a special exemption will be permitted into Japan for tourism until sometime in 2022.

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