Why Japan Still Hasn’t Reopened to Independent Travel

When is Japan Reopening to Independent Travelers?


Why Hasn't Japan Reopened to Independent Travel? It's not only the current surge of COVID-19 cases, driven by the BA.5 Omicron subvariant. As we wrote in Why Japan Hasn't Reopened to International Visitors, many Japanese, especially older Japanese who vote, support retaining strict controls on foreign arrivals. This is only in part related to covid: many foreigners don't tend to wear face masks as correctly or consistently as most Japanese, when in public spaces. Over the years prior to the pandemic, Kyoto and other major tourism centers in Japan saw quite a bit of over-tourism and poor tourist behavior that rankled local residents, and contributed toward antipathy to tourists.

This is why Japan's current travel rules only permit international tourists who have purchased a packaged tour through a Japanese travel agency, which includes a guide for each day of the tour and doesn't permit any independent travel before or after the tour days. This is a way for the Japanese government to try to have its cake and eat it too, telling foreigner visitors they're welcome to return to Japan, while also appeasing conservative voters by pointing out that foreigners will be escorted by a Japanese guide while in Japan, ensuring that these visitors wear face masks and abide by Japanese cultural norms. Unfortunately for the Japanese who work in the airline, hospitality and tourism industries, this won't bring back most international tourists, especially not visitors from the U.S. and Western countries, who aren't interested in packaged tours. Even if the guide requirement is eliminated from the package tours, many Americans and other Western visitors won't want to make their travel arrangements through Japanese travel agencies, as they prefer to arrange their own accommodations and have greater flexibility with their itinerary. Only 140,000 visitors arrived in Japan in July 2022, about 5 percent of the number that visited three years prior, in July 2019, and in a recent survey of people from 52 countries and territories, 72 percent of the respondents said they wouldn't or probably wouldn't visit Japan given its current entry restrictions that require purchasing a package tour to visit.

Since the current Omicron spike is clearly due to community spread and not being imported from foreign visitors, will Prime Minister Kishida's government loosen restrictions if/when the current wave ebbs, or will it remain beholden to conservative voters, who are at best apathetic and at worst antagonistic to allowing unguided independent travelers back into Japan?

We suspect that it will depend on approval ratings for Kishida, which, unfortunately for him and would-be visitors to Japan, plunged in the wake of former premier Shinzo Abe's assassination on July 8, 2022, due to ties between the Liberal Democratic Party that Kishida leads and the controversial Unification Church (the suspected assassin claimed his mother had been bankrupted by her many donations to the church, and blamed Abe for promoting it). According to a recent survey, Kishida's support has fallen to 47 percent from 59 percent a little over one month ago, while his disapproval rate has shot up to 39 percent from 25 percent in July. The survey also showed that 49 percent found the government's COVID-19 measures ineffective, while only 45 percent approved, the first time that more surveyed respondents have been critical than supportive. When a PM is this embattled, expect it to take awhile longer for entry restrictions to loosen.

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1 year ago

so frustrating how countries are using this as a political tool instead of following logic…

1 year ago

100% Agreed

1 year ago

As you know Hilary, it’s well known amongst experienced Asian travelers, especially fans of Japan, that there are many Japanese who are very insular and not fond of “outsiders/gaijin”. My brother who is a big fan of Japan and goes there often has also experienced the “not welcome here” a few times. So not surprising that there is a group that favor minimizing the entry of foreign tourists. Japan has had a huge influx (Pre Pandemic) of Chinese tourists, and with the current tensions with China, not surprising that some Japanese are not too thrilled having a bunch of Chinese… Read more »