As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan is cautiously relaxing its strict border control policy to start allowing more foreign nationals to enter the country.

With the latest revision to its travel restrictions, which came into effect earlier in November, the government has changed some procedures for new arrivals from abroad. While preparing for next year’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, authorities are also working toward easing the restrictions further for visitors planning to attend the sporting extravaganza.

The government has implemented separate sets of rules for travelers from regions placed at Level 3, the second-highest under the nation’s travel advisory system and under which all travel is warned against, while exempting from mandatory testing those from areas that have managed to control the spread of the virus.

On Nov. 1, the government lowered its travel advisories for Australia, China, Brunei, Hong Kong, Macao, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam to Level 2, calling for nonessential travel to be avoided.

However, strict conditions for securing entry permission and ambiguity in the government’s guidelines on the border control policy, which was originally introduced in April to curb the spread of COVID-19 into Japan, continue to trigger confusion among visa applicants as well as their employers and organizations relying on skilled staff from overseas.

This article is aimed at clarifying application procedures for new visa applicants seeking entry to Japan.

Eligibility to seek entry

Foreign nationals from locations subject to existing travel restrictions, which now cover 152 countries and regions, who plan to visit Japan on short-term stays for recreational purposes are not yet eligible to apply for entry permission.

Travelers from other countries, including those that have been removed from the travel ban list but remain at Level 2 on the nation’s advisory for infectious diseases, are subject to certain requirements for entry.

Regardless of nationality or country of residence, foreign nationals who are planning to relocate to Japan are allowed to seek entry permission but under strict conditions. No limitations have been imposed on the visa categories for which they can apply.

On Thursday, officials from the central and the Tokyo Metropolitan Governments, as well as the local Olympic organizing committee, agreed to allow foreign athletes and staff from regions covered by entry restrictions to arrive in the nation and start preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Games.

A COVID-19 PCR testing center at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 2 | BLOOMBERG
A COVID-19 PCR testing center at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 2 | BLOOMBERG

With the most recent changes to the travel ban list, entry restrictions were relaxed for travelers from 11 countries and regions, including Australia, China, South Korea and Vietnam, where COVID-19 is considered to be relatively under control.

But in terms of whether that means everyone from those countries can now enter, it would be best to remain cautious. As the government has simultaneously retained its temporary suspension of visa exemptions for those countries, travelers departing from them will be required to apply for a visa to enter Japan. This condition also applies to diplomatic passport holders.

Additionally, due to a recent uptick in infections in Jordan and Myanmar, the two countries have been re-added to the list after alerts for infectious diseases, warning against all travel to those areas, were declared.

Foreign nationals entering the nation from countries and regions where entry restrictions have been lifted are allowed to travel via areas still covered by the restrictions as long as they do not complete landing procedures in those countries.

New visa applicants

All foreign nationals traveling from areas covered by travel restrictions will be required to apply for permission to enter the country at local immigration authorities, such as their nearest Japanese Embassy or consular office under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry.

Conditions for entry permission to Japan vary depending on the COVID-19 situation in the country of the applicant’s residence. New visa applicants from the 152 countries and regions covered by the travel restrictions will be subject to a stricter screening process.

In principle, new visa applicants are required to provide written assurance from their employer or sponsor organization that quarantine measures will be followed upon entering Japan, which is the main requirement for the screening process.

Visa sponsors are required to state why it is urgent and necessary for the foreign national to enter the country. Under the agreement, travelers from abroad must also enroll in national health insurance to gain entry permission.

In case of any violation of conditions in the written pledge, the government may publicly disclose the employer’s name.

Foreign nationals planning to bring their families to Japan also need to acquire such assurances for those family members from their visa sponsor.

Visa applicants from regions where the pandemic is considered to be relatively under control are still required to apply for entry permission before travel, but are allowed to enter under eased entry procedures that do not require COVID-19 testing.

Foreign nationals traveling from countries subject to Level 2 travel restrictions can use reciprocal business travel programs, which are now available for people traveling from Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam.

Entry procedures

All foreign nationals traveling to Japan from the 152 countries and regions covered by entry restrictions are required to undergo specific tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, prior to their trip and will be asked after entering Japan to submit proof they tested negative.

Only negative results for molecular diagnostic tests conducted via nasopharyngeal swab, saliva samples (using the real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction method known as RT-PCR or the loop-mediated isothermal amplification method known as LAMP) or an antigen test using the chemiluminescence enzyme immunoassay (CLEIA) method will be recognized as valid. Such tests need to be conducted within 72 hours before departure.

Documents confirming the procedure need to be filled out entirely in English and need to be signed by a doctor from the medical institution where the test was conducted or have the institution’s stamp. Those who fail to comply may be denied entry.

The requirement also applies to athletes, officials and staff coming from regions subject to entry restrictions who are seeking to begin preparations for the Olympics and Paralympics.

In principle, all travelers from regions covered by the travel restrictions are required to undergo tests for COVID-19 upon arrival and self-isolate for 14 days, during which time they are not allowed to use public transportation. Athletes will be exempt from this regulation.

Those entering from countries not subject to entry restrictions will be exempt from the requirement to undergo tests for COVID-19 before departure and on arrival providing they have no record of recent travel to countries still on the travel ban list.

Olympic entry

Foreign athletes and staff can now seek entry to Japan to start preparations for the Olympic Games.

Signs requesting social distancing are displayed on seats in the arrival zone of Narita International Airport, where there are fewer passengers than usual amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 2. | REUTERS
Signs requesting social distancing are displayed on seats in the arrival zone of Narita International Airport, where there are fewer passengers than usual amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 2. | REUTERS

The change to the entry restrictions for athletes and staff allows them to participate or compete in international tournaments as well as training camps even during a 14-day quarantine period after arrival.

However, such individuals are required to undergo tests for COVID-19 within 72 hours before departure for Japan and submit proof they had tested negative upon arrival. They are also required to monitor their health before entering the nation and to take precautionary measures throughout their stay here.

Their movements in Japan will be limited to certain locations, such as lodging facilities and competition and training venues, based on their plans and commitment letters, which need to be submitted beforehand.

Those using the program will be required to save their smartphone GPS data to aid in contact tracing.

Prospects for tourism

When Japan will fully reopen its borders remains unclear, but according to government officials short-term travelers from overseas may start to be allowed to enter from next spring. Priority will likely be given to those hoping to attend the Tokyo summer games.

Under the envisioned relaxed policy, the government plans to oblige foreign tourists to acquire certification that they tested negative for the virus before their trip and to buy private medical insurance that would cover medical expenses in Japan in case they get infected.

Such travelers will also be asked to monitor their health after entry into Japan, and will be asked to report their condition via an app for 14 days after entering the country.

The government is considering exempting visitors who will attend next summer’s Olympics and Paralympics from self-quarantine and allow them to use public transport during that period provided they adhere to the self-reporting requirement.

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