Traveling to or from Japan? Rethink your plans.

Grappling with another rising wave of COVID-19 infections and fearing the transmission of new mutations of the novel coronavirus from abroad, Japan has once again tightened its border controls by temporarily banning entry by all new arrivals.

For Japanese nationals and foreign residents entering and re-entering the nation, the government is threatening to name and shame those who breach quarantine restrictions after arrival. Foreign nationals may even lose their residency status if they do not comply with quarantine measures.

With the new directive, which took effect Thursday, the government imposed a total ban on all new visa applicants with a small exception for business travelers who already have landing permission in place. Most new arrivals had already been barred since late December or early January, but under the latest policy Japan has expanded the ban to cover those traveling for business purposes under reciprocal agreements as well as programs for athletes preparing for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga made the announcement during a news conference Wednesday night, explaining that border control measures would be tightened in response to growing concerns over new and more transmissible mutations of the virus that causes COVID-19.

On Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said the rise in numbers of infections that involve new strains of the virus “could cause the already strained health care system to collapse.”

“The number of infections is growing nationwide and we need to curb the spread as much as possible,” he said.

As frequent policy changes continue to wreak havoc with travel plans, this article is aimed at clarifying entry procedures for those seeking entry or re-entry to Japan.

Visa eligibility

An entry ban remains in place for 152 nations and regions. Currently, only non-Japanese residents with valid residency status and Japanese nationals are allowed to re-enter the country without any review of their reasons for traveling to Japan.

With the latest changes to its border control policy, Japan has temporarily banned entry for all new arrivals, including people using programs for short-term or long-term business travel based on reciprocal agreements with 11 countries.

The exclusion of business travelers from earlier controls had been met with criticism from both the public and lawmakers, who feared the influx could contribute to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases nationwide.

As of Wednesday, 130,164 people had entered the country using such programs since their introduction, in phases, since last June. In fact, while subject to strict screening and entry procedures, short-term business travelers were allowed to commute to work without a 14-day quarantine under the condition they would not use public transportation.

The countries and regions with business travel agreements affected by the latest restrictions are Cambodia, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

The latest entry restrictions will remain in place until Feb. 7, when the state of emergency declared for 11 prefectures is set to expire. However, it is likely the bans will be extended beyond then if daily numbers of new infections don’t decline in those prefectures.

The travel ban also continues to apply to those who had already received confirmation of their eligibility to enter the country as new arrivals by December. Such confirmation, which is often referred to in Japan as “landing permission,” is usually issued in the form of the Certificate of Eligibility (CoE). People who have received such confirmation have been unable to enter Japan since Jan. 4 under previously announced restrictions. The one exception is those who have received confirmation that they meet the conditions for entry permission under the business travel programs, who will be allowed in until Jan. 21.

A staff member at an airline company works at the check-in area of the international flight terminal at Haneda Airport on Dec. 28 last year. | REUTERS
A staff member at an airline company works at the check-in area of the international flight terminal at Haneda Airport on Dec. 28 last year. | REUTERS

Stricter re-entry procedures

From Wednesday, all eligible travelers entering Japan are being asked to submit proof they tested negative for COVID-19 prior to their departure, regardless of where they are traveling from.

The requirement has been in place for some since last year, but until this week it only applied to foreign nationals entering the country from regions covered by travel bans. With the recent change, Japanese nationals, too, are required to submit the certification.

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.

Those who do not comply with the requirement to undergo tests for COVID-19 before their departure, as well as those traveling from areas affected by new strains of the virus, will be allowed to enter but will be required to self-isolate for three days at a designated facility upon arrival.

Those who test negative on the third day after arriving will be allowed to return home and will be asked to remain in self-isolation for a further 11 days.

The government imposed the pre-entry testing requirement on Japanese returnees following reports of imported infections with the newest variants of SARS-CoV-2, including the B.1.1.7 lineage believed to be up to 70% more transmissible than other strains.

The variant, which was first detected in the U.K., was later confirmed in Japanese nationals returning from overseas in December. Earlier in January, Japan’s health ministry also reported four cases of infection with a newly mutated variant of the virus, which has similarities to the British and South African strains, detected in people returning to Japan from Brazil.

People wait at the international flight terminal at Haneda Airport on Dec. 28 last year. | REUTERS
People wait at the international flight terminal at Haneda Airport on Dec. 28 last year. | REUTERS

Penalties for breaking COVID-19 rules

With the revised policy Japan has also imposed penalties for people who violate its quarantine rules.

All people re-entering the country under the current travel restrictions, including Japanese returnees, will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival and must observe self-isolation rules for 14 days after arriving in Japan, either at home or at designated facilities. During that period, the use of public transportation is in principle prohibited with the exception of dedicated train cars on the Keisei Line operating between Narita and downtown Tokyo.

The government has warned that it may disclose the names of those who violate quarantine measures. Penalties for foreign nationals may be stricter.

In addition to the disclosure of names, those who violate the rules may have their residence permits revoked and, as a result, may face deportation under Japan’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of coronavirus measures, said Wednesday.

All travelers entering Japan will be required to submit a written pledge that they will abide by the regulations during the 14-day period after entering the country.

Those who are traveling from areas that have reported infections with new strains of the virus, such as the U.K. and South Africa, must self-isolate at a designated facility for the first three days. Arrangements will be made by airport quarantine stations.

People coming to Japan from such regions will be required to undergo tests for COVID-19 on the third day after entering the country, and those who test negative for the virus will be allowed to return home and remain in self-isolation for the remainder of the 14-day quarantine period.

While remaining in self-isolation, the returnees are obliged to record information on their health condition using a contact-tracing app named COCOA, granting it access to location data on their smartphones.

When asked about the penalties for breaching the quarantine procedures, top government spokesman Kato said that such consequences would be applied as a violation of the pledge travelers are required to accept detailing all the conditions for entry or re-entry.

More details regarding the revised border control policy can be found on the Foreign Ministry’s website as well as the health ministry’s website.

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