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Japan started accepting applications for “vaccine passports” Monday, with the business community and travelers welcoming the fact that the documents will exempt them from border control measures, including mandatory quarantines, in some countries.

The official documents, which have been introduced nationwide, will initially be accepted by Austria, Bulgaria, Italy, Poland and Turkey, where holders will be exempted from quarantine measures and additional tests for COVID-19 imposed on those without proof of inoculation. The document can also help with applications for exemption from quarantine requirements in South Korea.

Japan is negotiating with other governments on expanding use of its vaccine passports.

The program is proving useful for people such as Jan Chipchase, who has been a resident of Japan for about 12 years and is planning to travel for work to Tajikistan. A mandatory quarantine would affect his busy schedule, but with the vaccine passports being recognized in Turkey, which will be part of his travel route, he will be exempted from the measure.

Chipchase applied for the document at Meguro Ward in Tokyo, which had announced on its website that applicants would be able to receive their vaccine passport within 30 minutes — just the amount of time it took to collect his.

The certificate, which is issued free of charge, states that the individual has been fully inoculated against COVID-19 and also gives personal information such as name, passport number and date of vaccination, as well as what type of vaccine they received.

The British national, who arrived at the ward office about 30 minutes after opening on Monday morning, said he needed to line up as more than a dozen people were already waiting in the queue, describing the overall process as “smooth.” He added that there were six front-line staffers, including two English speakers. As of July 1, Meguro had 280,586 residents, including 8,957 foreign nationals.

A mobile phone displays the QR code for an EU Digital COVID Certificate | AFP-JIJI
A mobile phone displays the QR code for an EU Digital COVID Certificate | AFP-JIJI

But some applicants may face longer waits and inconvenience, as not all municipalities have opted to issue the documents on the spot.

For example, Yokohama has decided to accept applications by mail, which means that applicants will need to wait at least a week or up to 10 days to obtain the certificate.

“As the government left the decision on the application system to municipalities, we decided to accept them by mail” to ensure that the information we refer to and fill in is correct, said an official from the Yokohama Municipal Government’s section overseeing its vaccination campaign and related procedures. The information included in vaccine passports will be based on vaccination records registered at local municipalities.

The official said that eventually the city may introduce a system that allows the documents to be issued on the spot, but providing accurate information may be challenging given that Yokohama is the most populous city in the country — with some 3.78 million residents, including 100,828 foreign nationals, as of June. By early afternoon, the city had received more than a dozen inquiries about vaccine passports.

The program was introduced following calls from Keidanren, Japan’s most powerful business lobby group, which suggested the certificates be used domestically to ease restrictions on admission to events and provide discounts at restaurants. However, the proposal raised concerns over putting an excessive burden on local governments as well as possible discrimination against those who have not been vaccinated. In Japan, vaccination is not mandatory.

A woman is vaccinated in Fukuoka Prefecture on July 20. | KYODO
A woman is vaccinated in Fukuoka Prefecture on July 20. | KYODO

While the system is expected to provide some assurance to business travelers, many residents have expressed disappointment over the fact that the vaccine passports Japan issues will not be recognized under its own border control policy, with the documents not exempting people entering Japan, including Japanese citizens, from quarantine measures.

Even though Japan is currently in talks with other countries on expanding the use of vaccine passports, it does not yet accept similar documents issued abroad.

“Obviously reciprocity is a foundational principle that I hope is enacted, and I’m confident that will come in due course,” Chipchase said. “That said, this (kind of) document means different things in different countries, and the ability to obtain a ‘vaccine passport’ through unofficial means may be prevalent. The key question will be whether the document is traceable to its source.”

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