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Japan will relax from October its border restrictions aimed at controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus to allow entry for new visa applicants other than tourists from all regions.

The change was announced Friday during a meeting of the government’s subcommittee on the virus and was set to be approved at the subsequent meeting of the government’s virus task force, in a long-anticipated move to relax the nation’s strict travel restrictions. The restrictions were introduced in April as a temporary border control measure aimed at curbing transmission of the virus.

Under the existing travel controls, travelers from 159 countries and regions have been denied entry in principle.

So far, exceptions have been made for foreign nationals with valid residence statuses, some newcomers in urgent situations as well as certain visa applicants whose families live in Japan or whose presence is necessary for their employer to continue business operations.

The relaxed border control measures, which will come into force on Thursday, will apply to new residents with permission to stay more than three months, regardless of where they come from.

With the revision, which will not cover tourists, non-Japanese nationals will be allowed to travel to Japan in phases, for reasons including to provide medical services, engage in cultural activities or carry out educational activities.

Following the change, the scope of eligible applicants will be expanded to include privately financed international students. Since August the government has been in the process of resuming visa processing for government-sponsored students. The revised regulations will also cover visiting relatives using a family stay visa.

Travelers from regions with higher coronavirus infection numbers will be subject to stricter entry procedures.

“Further resumption of international travel is indispensable to revitalize the (nation’s) economy,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told the government task force.

The decision to relax the entry restrictions comes as Japan is readying for the Tokyo Games, which will start on July 23 next year. With the changes, the government is also expected to allow entry for sports professionals, benefiting athletes who intend to compete at next year’s games.

However, Japan will allow in only a limited number of new international arrivals — up to around 1,000 per day — partially due to limited testing capacity at airports. The limitations will not apply to Japanese nationals.

The government is planning to increase the number of tests conducted at international airports to 20,000 in November.

All foreign nationals traveling to Japan are required to undergo testing for the virus and, with some exceptions, observe a 14-day quarantine period upon arrival.

Following recent revisions to protocols, all foreign travelers, including those with a legal residence status in Japan, also need to submit proof they tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours prior to their departure for Japan.

As entry procedures vary for different visa categories, foreign nationals planning to travel to Japan will be required to submit their travel schedule or detailed itinerary in Japan and will be subject to further control measures.

Simultaneously, the government is easing restrictions for business travelers. On Friday, the Foreign Ministry announced that Japan would soon reopen its borders to long-term expatriates from Singapore and Brunei under a reciprocal agreement, which will mandate those eligible for travel to self-isolate for 14-days after entering the respective countries.

Japan has been in talks towards resuming business travel with 16 economies mainly in Asia, including Australia, China, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. The pandemic is deemed to be relatively under control in all those regions.

So far it has reopened borders for long-term and short-term travelers from seven countries: Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Singapore and Brunei are the latest additions to the reciprocal business travel program.

The program allows short-term business travelers to enter the country of their destination without the need to self-isolate providing they test negative for COVID-19 prior to their trip and upon entry to the destination country.

Japan’s travel ban has drawn criticism not only from the nation’s foreign community but also international business groups and educational institutions relying on foreign talent, as it has affected hundreds of thousands of new visa applicants slated to come to Japan to work or study.

Many people who were unable to travel during the pandemic said the travel ban had jeopardized their educational or employment opportunities.

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