New coronavirus variants emerging in different corners of the world have caused Japan to make numerous changes to its border control measures in recent months.

At present, only Japanese citizens and, in principle, foreign nationals with a valid residence status are allowed to re-enter Japan, as long as they comply with entry requirements by getting tested before travel and submitting documentation of being free of COVID-19.

While the ban on new arrivals remains in place, entry permission can be granted to some people in emergency cases or for spouses and children of Japanese citizens or of non-Japanese with established residency here.

But the changing situation abroad, thanks to successful vaccine drives in many developed countries, has also prompted the country to adapt and loosen some of its quarantine requirements, raising hopes for a smoother entry for people arriving in Japan, although all new entries including visa applicants are still banned.

Here’s a closer look at the latest quarantine protocols and the challenges surrounding the measures.

What is the current quarantine protocol and how do the rules vary depending on points of departure?

In recent weeks, Japan has applied new measures and removed others, with rules varying from country to country. For example, new anti-virus measures range from extended self-isolation periods in government-selected facilities to an entry ban targeting even resident foreign nationals.

The country’s quarantine protocol for arrivals depends on the severity of the pandemic situation at their point of departure or in the places they have recently visited.

Japan has three types of extra measures included in its standard two-week quarantine period.

  • For arrivals from countries with new coronavirus variants where the spread of COVID-19 is relatively under control: self-isolation for three days in government-designated facilities and testing for COVID-19 at the end of their stay.
  • For arrivals from countries where new, more deadly variants have been discovered: self-isolation for six days in designated facilities and two rounds of testing. Those who test negative on the sixth day are allowed to self-quarantine at home or elsewhere for the remainder of the 14-day period.
  • For arrivals from India and some of its neighboring countries: a total entry ban for all foreign nationals, including those with valid residence status in Japan. Japanese citizens are allowed to re-enter but are required to spend 10 days in government-designated facilities and take three COVID-19 tests.

Expenses for stays at designated facilities are covered by the government and include three meals per day.

Athletes, coaches, staffers and journalists arriving for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games are covered by a different set of rules that exempt them from quarantine. Nonetheless, their movement is limited for the first 14 days after arrival and they are required to undergo periodic coronavirus tests.

Tourism minister Kazuyoshi Akaba inspects border controls at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on June 4. | KYODO
Tourism minister Kazuyoshi Akaba inspects border controls at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on June 4. | KYODO

What’s allowed during the quarantine period and who will be punished for violations?

All arrivals are required to self-isolate for 14 days after entering the country and are required to report their health condition and whereabouts.

All arrivals are prohibited from using public transportation during the 14-day quarantine period, except for special train cars on certain lines. Their travel options include the use of a rental car or specially designated taxis to get to their accommodations for the self-isolation period.

During the two-week period, people who self-isolate at home or other facilities of their choice are allowed to go out for essential purposes, such as buying groceries and other necessities, but are asked to limit their outings. Such outings are not permitted for those who are required to stay in government-designated facilities.

People who do not comply with the quarantine measures may face penalties, such as having their names or other personal information disclosed publicly. Foreign nationals who break the rules can lose their residence status.

Aside from border control measures, the revised Quarantine Act says that those who test positive and refuse to be hospitalized may face a maximum ¥1 million fine or up to a year in prison.

Those who refuse to answer or provide false information to health authorities could be slapped with a maximum fine of ¥500,000 or face jail time of up to six months.

The government has admitted there were technical problems that led to people being wrongfully accused of quarantine violations. Have those issues been resolved?

In May, the health ministry reported that on a daily basis as many as several thousand people fail to report their whereabouts or respond to questionnaires about their health condition when asked to do so. Data disclosed by the ministry on May 19 showed that about 6,600 people, or roughly 29% of the 23,000 travelers self-quarantining on any given day after entering Japan, had not been responding to smartphone app notifications used to confirm their whereabouts.

Government officials later admitted that the failure to track some people was caused by technical problems on the government’s end.

According to government officials, the problem has not been resolved.

On June 18, the health ministry explained during a meeting of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Foreign Affairs Division that in June, about 16%, or 4,100 people, under quarantine could not be reached by email to confirm their health condition on any given day, while the whereabouts of about 13%, or 3,000 people, could not be confirmed. The ministry added that 36%, or 5,100 people, were not responding to video calls.

“I think this situation needs to be improved,” Masahisa Sato, an Upper House lawmaker who heads the LDP division, said during the meeting. “I think that the numbers are still too high to make the public feel that the government is doing a good job.”

A Japan Airlines agent helps a passenger at Los Angeles International Airport in November. | AFP-JIJI
A Japan Airlines agent helps a passenger at Los Angeles International Airport in November. | AFP-JIJI

What changes can be expected to the quarantine protocol?

The most recent changes to Japan’s quarantine protocol are linked to the fluctuating numbers of infections stemming from new and more dangerous mutations of the coronavirus.

The most rigorous measures have been imposed on regions with infections of the delta variant, which was first confirmed in India and has since spread to more than 80 countries, according to the World Health Organization.

The government has warned that a further spread of the variant may lead to changes to the nation’s quarantine protocols. However, the list of countries and regions from which arrivals are subject to stricter quarantine requirements will become shorter if infections in those places go down.

Quarantine measures for Japan (updated June 29)

The varying nature of the pandemic worldwide and the emergence of new and more contagious coronavirus variants have led Japan to implement numerous changes to its quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Here is the list of countries and regions covered by the most recent update to the quarantine measures, which include mandatory self-isolation in government-selected facilities and additional tests for COVID-19. The length of the quarantine period and the numbers of tests varies depending on the severity of the pandemic situation in the relevant country.

In some cases, Japan has introduced additional measures targeting foreign nationals, including those with a valid residence status in Japan, due to the spread of the delta variant. Those countries are listed separately, as the denial of entry permission does not apply to Japanese citizens.

The quarantine measures are different from the general entry restrictions, which were imposed last year and have been revised since. These target all new entrants and cover more than 150 countries and regions.

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