Will Japan open its portals to foreigners as Covid fears ease? Here, gateways mark a shrine hidden away in a quiet corner of Tokyo's Shinjuku district. Photo: Tom Coyner

With Japan passing an apparent peak in Covid-19 infections, the country is considering raising its infamously low ceiling for incoming foreign nationals.

In the first week of February, Japan was seeing daily infections of more than 100,000, but those numbers are falling. This week, daily new cases have been in the 70,000-80,000 range.

And as has been the case in Africa and Europe, the Omicron variant has proven to be far milder than its predecessors. As a result, the much-feared overload of national medical services has not happened, with most patients – more than 200,000 in Japan – quarantining at home without the need for hospitalization.

This positive trend may be influencing the government to re-open borders.

According to Kyodo News, which cited an unnamed government source, the world’s third-largest economy will expand its daily quota of foreign visitors from 3,500 at present to 5,000 in March.

Tokyo is also considering scrapping its strict quarantine requirement for arrivals, the source told the news agency. That suggests the present seven-day, mandatory post-arrival confinement period will be scrapped if visitors can show proof of a negative Covid-19 test and a third vaccine shot.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who boasted that Japan’s entry control measures were “the strictest in the G7” group of nations, is expected to clarify the situation in a press conference on Thursday.

After the highly transmissible Omicron variant was identified in Southern Africa in November, an alarmed Japan raised barriers to the entry of foreign nationals.

They have exceeded expectations. Since they were enacted on November 29, only about 6,000 foreigners have entered Japan through to February 10, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno admitted, according to Kyodo.

That total falls far short of the number that would have been expected if the daily permitted quota – 3,500 foreigners – had been granted entry each day. That, in turn, suggests either that bureaucrats have implemented the controls with great zealousness, or prospective entrants have simply been dissuaded from travel to Japan.

The Narita Airport Terminal in pre-Covid times. Photo: WikiCommons

The protective measures have proved popular with locals. According to one poll, 89% of Japanese approved.

Foreign residents of Japan, many of whom consider the controls discriminatory, have been less happy. Angry pushback has been building.

The entry restrictions have been criticized by members of the expatriate community, who have complained on social media and signed petitions.

On February 9, officials from the European and US chambers of commerce in Japan weighed in with a press conference where they criticized the border closures for denying Japan foreign talent, and said the measures were taking a toll on both the economy and future investment decisions.

News has also spread that the entry bans were dissuading 140,000-150,000 foreign students with visas from either beginning their studies or resuming interrupted studies in Japan. As a result, according to reports, students were diverting to other nations such as South Korea and Taiwan.

Even Kishida appears to be wavering. The prime minister said on February 12: “We will take into account accumulated scientific knowledge on the Omicron variant, changes in infection conditions inside and outside Japan, and other countries’ border control measures.”

The news on foreign students compelled the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to wade into the fray. LDP lawmakers on February 14 drew up a resolution to admit foreign students into the country, above and beyond the set daily quota of entries.

But even if policy shifts in March, it looks unlikely that Japan will return to a pre-Covid, open-door visitor policy, as some European nations are doing.

Prior to the erection of the latest barriers last November, Japan had permitted 5,000 foreigners in per day. If the March policy is a return to that, it will be a far cry from the genteel border controls that had beckoned global tourists before Covid-19 stormed onto the global stage in 2020.

Prior to the pandemic, under the government of ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan had prioritized incoming tourism as a growth sector of the economy. In 2019, the year Japan hosted the Rugby World Cup, it welcomed 31 million overseas visitors.

However, under the “5,000 persons per day” cap, simple mathematics shows that Japan would, at maximum, only be able to accept a total of 1,825,000 people into the country annually.