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Starting from September, Japan will loosen its widely criticized entry restrictions on travelers from abroad, allowing all its foreign residents with a legal residence status to travel freely and thus enabling those seeking re-entry to the country to return, government officials said Friday. However, travel will be subject to some conditions, including pre-entry tests for COVID-19.

The government also said that it is working to speed up the issuance of new visas to let in some businesspeople who were unable to enter due to the entry restrictions.

The government decided Friday to lift strict re-entry restrictions on foreign nationals with a legal residence status in Japan, which were introduced April 3 as a preventive measure aimed at curbing the spread of the virus. The revised policy will enable all foreign residents to re-enter the country after notifying immigration authorities about their travel plans.

Starting in September, foreign residents will be required to undergo coronavirus testing upon entry and observe a 14-day quarantine period. The same conditions apply to Japanese nationals coming from abroad.

Additionally, however, all foreign nationals will be required to submit proof they were tested for COVID-19 within 72 hours prior to their departure. The condition has already been imposed on students, working visa holders and people with “family stay” visas who had left Japan before the imposition of the ban and were granted permission to return on Aug. 5. Starting from Tuesday, the condition will be applicable to all residents and new arrivals.

The announcement comes amid intensifying criticism of the existing policy from the foreign community and business groups heavily affected by the restrictions to travel, which have cut thousands of people off from access to their livelihoods for months and have been described as discriminatory.

Under the existing travel restrictions, only foreign residents who had left the country before the introduction of the entry restrictions have been allowed to return. Meanwhile, those who have left the country after their destinations were added to the entry ban list and those who are planning to leave the country temporarily need special permission to re-enter from immigration officials.

Such permits have been issued in limited situations, such as in order to attend the funeral of a relative, to appear as a witness at a court hearing or a health emergency. However, exceptional treatment was not guaranteed.

With the changes that will come into effect Tuesday, people who had left Japan temporarily without being granted permission to re-enter the country will be able to do so, but they will need to contact local Japanese embassies or consular offices to inform them of their travel plans and complete entry procedures.

No resident will require special circumstances to be granted permission to re-enter the country but those who are planning to re-enter will need to contact the Immigration Services Agency before their departure from Japan. Such requests will be accepted online.

The procedure is needed to keep a record of people departing from Japan and boost testing capacity at airports.

The revised policy will apply to travelers from 159 countries and regions following the latest additions to the travel ban, which will come into effect on Sunday. The 13 newly added nations are Belize, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Gambia, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Sudan, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The update follows the Foreign Ministry’s decision to raise its travel advisory to the second-highest on its four-point scale for infectious diseases earlier this week.

As of Aug. 13, around 192,000 foreign nationals were outside the country. Of them, 29,000 have left since the entry restrictions were imposed, including those who have not been granted permission to return under the strict policy. The entry restrictions, which originally denied entry to all working visa holders, students and people with family members in Japan using “family stay” visas, have left around 90,000 foreign nationals with valid legal statuses unable to return.

About 2.63 million foreign nationals with valid visa statuses in Japan, excluding diplomats and those with special permanent resident certificates issued for people of Korean and Taiwanese descent, are subjected to the entry restrictions.

The government also said that it has also resumed processing of entry requests from international students ― both those seeking re-entry and those who have been newly admitted to educational institutions ー with priority given to students who receive scholarships sponsored by the government.

Japan is also set to allow entry to non-Japanese whose visas have been already processed but who could not enter the country to start educational courses or work.

International business groups from Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand have repeatedly called on Japan to relax the entry barriers, which have significantly affected foreign-owned companies and businesses in Japan relying on international workers.

Japan is gradually opening its borders to business travelers including those seeking new visas, with priority to be given to countries that have been relatively successful in bringing the pandemic under control. The government has been in talks with around 13 countries including New Zealand, Australia and China about resuming business travel, but so far it has begun to accept business travelers only from Thailand and Vietnam. Between Aug. 17 and Aug. 23, 160 Thai and Vietnamese were allowed entry under the plan aimed at businesspeople.

The government said that from September it will start letting in business travelers from Singapore as well as Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Japan heavily relies on workers from Southeast Asia, who fill gaps in industries suffering from severe labor shortages such as agriculture and construction. It remains unknown, however, when Japan will allow business travelers from other countries in.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan has said that 91 percent of companies that took part in a survey on the effects of the entry ban have reported that it has placed a burden on their business. In a statement released Thursday, the ACCJ said that many business owners have reported that key personnel from their companies will not be returning to Japan, as the ban has halted their ongoing projects. Nearly 40 percent of survey respondents reported that they expect a loss of revenue as a direct result of the entry ban.

A majority of American companies in Japan that took part in the survey have said that the entry ban will affect future investment decisions. Some respondents also pointed to long-lasting negative effects of the ban, which has “reinforced the negative perception that Japan does not provide a level playing-field for business and discriminates against foreign workers.”

“While many members recognize that actions are necessary to curb the spread of the coronavirus, restricting entry into Japan only for foreigners has reinforced perceptions of discrimination and makes Japan less favorable for conducting business,” the statement read.

European companies with headquarters in Japan have also been heavily burdened by the entry restrictions. A survey conducted by the European Business Council between June and July has shown that a majority of European companies have been forced to suspend internal development projects, as key specialists could not come to Japan, or were concerned about their turnover due to the halt of ongoing projects. Also, 44 percent of European firms were expecting a loss of revenue as a result of the ban.

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