Tourism goal sparks plan to expedite immigration process

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

The government may simplify the immigration process to make it easier for foreign tourists to enter Japan and achieve its goal of bringing in 25 million visitors a year by 2020.

A panel under the Justice Ministry that has discussed the topic since October 2011 is “in the process of finalizing its proposal,” an official at the Immigration Bureau said Thursday.

The members of the panel, originally scheduled to conclude discussions by March, have already put forward an interim report proposing a “Trusted Traveler” program that would provide automated gates at ports of entry for low-risk travelers.

Eligible travelers would have to present biometric data as well as apply in advance at Japanese consulates overseas, but once enrolled they would receive the preferential treatment on all subsequent visits.

According to the Justice Ministry, which overseas the bureau, the panel acknowledged that the government must figure out a way to determine which travelers are low-risk and which aren’t. But they agreed that automating the immigration process as much as possible is the “practical” way to simplify entry for foreign visitors.

The changes would require legal revisions.

The panel also touched on how foreigners who live in Japan would also be eligible to use such automated gates.

The government has been implementing the Visit Japan campaign in an effort to attract more tourists to the country. The goal is to bring in 25 million annually by 2020 and build that up to more than 30 million per year.

The number of foreign visitors dropped sharply after the March 2011 calamity but has been rebounding thanks to the weaker yen and progress with recovery.

In March, the Justice Ministry said 9.17 million foreign nationals visited in 2012, up more than 2 million from the previous year. It fell just short of the record of 9.44 million set in 2010.

The nine-member Justice Ministry panel includes Yokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi, Bryan Norton, cochairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s Asia Business Committee, Tsutomu Kimura, chairman of the Tokyo board of education, and university professors.