Japanese airports are known for their cleanliness and clockwork efficiency, but the surge in tourists and foreign students entering the country has been creating hourlong lines at Narita airport’s border control.
“It was a sight I’d never seen before at Narita airport,” said Masahiro Morioka, a Waseda University professor who arrived late Sunday afternoon and witnessed a massive line snaking its way around the airport’s hallways.
“The line went on forever, and it wasn’t moving at all. The people in line looked evidently distressed,” he said.
Both Narita airport and the Narita branch of the Immigration Bureau did not release daily figures on how many people had passed through, but both confirmed that the period between late March and early April is peak season for inbound travelers, with both the cherry blossom season and the new school year magnifying the influx.
“There are many students who enter the country for the mid- to long-term during this season. As we issue residence cards on the spot for them, it takes that much more time for them to get through immigration,” said immigration spokesperson Hiroyuki Maeda.
“That most likely is a contributing factor to the long lines for immigration,” he said.
“The worst thing about it was that there were no staff members or any information about what was going on. We didn’t even know what we were queuing for or whether we were queuing in the right place,” said Kim Yong-nam, who flew into Narita from South Korea on Sunday afternoon.
Kim, who has permanent residency, was told she had to wait in line with foreign visitors without visas. She waited for an hour before being told by a different employee that she could enter a separate, shorter line for permanent residents.
There were only a few staff members at the front of the queue, so “when you were at the very back it felt like we were left stranded, and we really had no idea what was going on,” she added.
“It was very surprising, especially because Japanese airports are so efficient and systematic.”
Later this year, Narita will be introducing new machines that will scan the faces of Japanese and collate the scanned information with their passports to speed up the immigration process.
Maeda hopes the automation of the immigration process for Japanese nationals will open up more immigration booths for foreign visitors, thereby speeding up the process overall.
International arrivals and departures at Narita airport hit an all-time high in 2017 with 251,639 flights.
The number of foreign travelers who entered Japan through the airport also set a new high at 15,514,180, up 11 percent from the previous year.
The bureau claimed it has stepped up efforts to create a smoother immigration process, but its attempts have not been able to catch up with the increasing number of visitors.
“This happened on a normal day,” said Kim, who ended up waiting for about an hour and a half to get through immigration. “What will happen at the Olympics?”