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The international arrivals lobby at Haneda Airport Terminal 3 in Tokyo was eerily quiet Monday, with only a limited number of passengers from such destinations as Paris, Manila and Seattle showing up.

One of them was Barbara Tomiyama, 54, who arrived on a flight from Manila. She said she found the whole process of entering Japan — including the submission of a certificate showing a negative test for COVID-19 within 72 hours prior to departure, taking antigen saliva tests upon arrival and the need to self-isolate for 14 days — “very inconvenient.”

“It’s time-consuming,” she said, having spent about two hours passing the inspections, adding that she came back to her home in Tokyo to live with her son who has permanent residence status.

She said she arranged for her brother-in-law to pick her up at the airport, as the use of public transportation is prohibited during the self-quarantine period.

Still, some others passed the inspection quickly in around an hour or so, as the saliva-based test to detect coronavirus infections can show results within 30 minutes. A 49-year-old American man who flew from Seattle for business said he found the process of entering Japan “very easy.”

“There’s very few people, almost nobody in there, so I’m happy it was pretty easy” to get through the inspection, said the man, who declined to be identified but said he works for the U.S. military.

Social distancing signs on benches at Haneda Airport in Tokyo in July | BLOOMBERG
Social distancing signs on benches at Haneda Airport in Tokyo in July | BLOOMBERG

He added that during the quarantine period of 14 days, he would have to limit his business activities to those done by phone.

Despite onerous inspections, they are still considered the lucky ones, as many foreign nationals are unable to get a coronavirus test within 72 hours prior to their departure. That, along with the two-week self-isolation requirement and other strict conditions, may explain why so few of them can come to Japan despite the eased entry rules this month.

As Tokyo started tightening border controls for foreign travelers in February and subsequently asked all people entering the country, including those without any COVID-19 symptoms, to self-quarantine at home or in a hotel for two weeks upon entry, private lodging provider Matsuri Technologies in February became the first in the industry to provide self-isolation housing for temporary returnees, offsetting fast-declining demand due to the precipitous fall in foreign travelers.

The firm’s website offers around 10,000 properties for self-isolation, including nearly 1,000 that it directly manages in major cities such as Tokyo, Sapporo, Osaka, Kyoto and Fukuoka, by far the biggest number of offerings of any comparable site, though some of them only allow stays of at least 30 days, General Sales Manager Yuzo Kuwajima said.

Kansai Airport's international arrivals lobby is almost deserted in Osaka on Oct. 1, the day Japan reopened its borders to all foreign travelers with mid- to long-term residence permits. | KYODO
Kansai Airport’s international arrivals lobby is almost deserted in Osaka on Oct. 1, the day Japan reopened its borders to all foreign travelers with mid- to long-term residence permits. | KYODO

Until now, Tokyo-based Matsuri Technologies has provided self-quarantine facilities for a total of 2,000 people spread across 1,500 groups through its web site. Business was good as many hotels and minpaku private lodging services had refused the use of their rooms for self-quarantine until around May, Kuwajima said.

A growing number of hotels near major airports such as Haneda, Narita and Kansai International are offering places for self-isolation, as those three airports account for more than 90 percent of foreign visitors now. But those hotels usually have caps on the number of available rooms for self-quarantine.

The nation’s leading provider of minpaku, Airbnb Japan, said that there is no regulation concerning renting properties for self-isolation purposes to people who tested negative for the coronavirus, with the decision on whether to take them in being up to individual hosts. Some of its listings offer housing for quarantine.

Another difficulty that foreign nationals face upon entry to Japan is that they cannot use public transportation including taxis during the self-quarantine period. Some passengers at Haneda Airport on Monday used the free shuttle bus provided by the airport to get to nearby hotels. If they need to go somewhere else, they would have to arrange someone to pick them up, rent a car or hire a chauffeur-driven car.

An arrival lobby at Tokyo's Haneda Airport is crowded with people Sunday, on the first weekend after the capital was added to the Go To Travel campaign to shore up domestic tourism. | KYODO
An arrival lobby at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport is crowded with people Sunday, on the first weekend after the capital was added to the Go To Travel campaign to shore up domestic tourism. | KYODO

To respond to such needs, Matsuri Technologies has created packages that also include transportation to the place of stay, at a range of around ¥68,000 to ¥120,000 per person for two weeks including utility fees. An advantage of using the firm’s housing is the ability to use a kitchen and washing machine. People who are self-isolating are allowed to go outside to shop for daily necessities at supermarkets.

“We didn’t have any competitors until around May, so we had a solid number of customers,” Kuwajima said. “We operate monthly unmanned apartments. Because there’s no human interaction, except for the cleaning after the rooms are vacated, accepting people can be done smoothly.”

The global pandemic has led to a mass cancellation of flights around the world, and the number of foreign visitors has declined by more than 90 percent from a year earlier since April. For Matsuri Technologies, meeting demand for the niche market has helped offset associated losses, Kuwajima said — foreign inbound visitors used to make up 80 percent of minpaku users.

The further relaxation of foreign nationals’ entry restrictions this month came as Japan prepares for the Tokyo Games, which have been postponed until next summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the government has for now capped the number of foreign nationals allowed entry to around 1,000 per day.

Currently three airports, Haneda, Narita and Kansai International, have the capacity to process 10,000 coronavirus tests, but the health ministry plans to double testing capacity at airports across Japan and install testing equipment at New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido, Chubu Centrair International Airport in Aichi Prefecture and Fukuoka International Airport in Kyushu.

Besides self-isolation and the ban on using public transportation, Japan also requires that foreign residents install on their smartphones the COVID-19 contract-tracing app Cocoa, a map app and the Line messaging app to answer daily checks on their health. Organizations or entities sponsoring individuals that violate those requirements may be announced to the public, the government says.

A Japan Airlines Co. aircraft at Haneda Airport in Tokyo in July | BLOOMBERG
A Japan Airlines Co. aircraft at Haneda Airport in Tokyo in July | BLOOMBERG

Japan currently has entry restrictions for 159 countries and regions, but foreigners with residence status who had traveled abroad and foreign students on Japanese government grants were allowed re-entry on Sept. 1. Tokyo relaxed its restrictions further this month to include foreign nationals on business trips, privately financed foreign students and those involved in medical, cultural art and sports activities who have permission to stay for three months or longer, with the exception of tourists.

It has now become a requirement for them to submit written assurance from their company or sponsor that the two-week self-quarantine measures will be followed upon entry, the key prerequisite among a plethora of other conditions.

To further stimulate the economy, the government is reportedly considering exempting Japanese citizens and foreign nationals from self-quarantine if they submit a detailed plan on places they will visit and promise not to use public transportation. The new policy is set to be finalized as early as this month, according to local media.

An inspection official checks a saliva sample in a coronavirus antigen test at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture last week. | KYODO
An inspection official checks a saliva sample in a coronavirus antigen test at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture last week. | KYODO

Amid that background, some universities in Japan said they were busy dealing with foreign and domestic students as the new semester began. Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, said it is receiving an increasing number of inquiries from foreign students regarding entry to Japan.

“Our university will provide maximum support for entry into Japan of foreign students,” APU said in a statement. “Our domestic students have high hopes for deepening the exchange with foreign students.”

According to APU, its survey in March showed that about 600 existing foreign students who returned to their home countries during the spring break were unable to return to Japan. But since regulations for foreign nationals with permission for re-entry were eased on Aug. 5, some of them have returned, although APU said it is difficult to know the exact number of students who did so. Meanwhile, about 590 new foreign students from about 60 countries and regions who enrolled in April and September have not yet been able to arrive, it added.

To help new foreign students come to Japan to study, APU said it decided on Monday to outsource work on creating packages of accommodation and transportation during the self-isolation period. It said that students would shoulder the burden in principle, but the university is considering sharing the cost.

After offering packages to new foreign students, APU said it plans to allow existing foreign students to take advantage of that as well.

“This way, the students do not have to arrange various things and make contact with the university,” the APU said. “This will also allow us to understand the status of entry of foreign students and respond to any problems, so it will have merits for both students and the university.”

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