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Over the past month, Japan’s border control policies have flip-flopped over the newly discovered omicron variant of the coronavirus.

After the fifth COVID-19 wave waned and the vaccinated rate reached a high level, Japan opened up its borders to new entries by foreign nationals for the first time in almost a year.

Yet less than a month later, the country reversed course due to fears over the omicron variant, which is believed to be highly transmissible, once again shutting its borders to all arrivals except Japanese citizens and foreign residents.

For a brief period, the government even went a step further, announcing on Dec. 1 that it had asked airlines to stop taking new reservations for all international flights into Japan. But this drastic move was retracted the following day amid criticism that the measure was too strict, as it would have effectively prevented Japanese nationals from returning.

It also highlighted poor coordination within the government, since the transport ministry did not report the move to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for two days.

All of that may have left some would-be travelers confused about the current situation, so here are some questions and answers about Japan's entry restrictions.

So who can enter Japan now?

Basically, only Japanese and returning foreign residents are allowed to enter the country.

As of Tuesday, foreign residents returning from 11 high-risk countries — Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia — are barred.

Travelers arriving via a Philippine Airlines flight fill out paperwork at a screening area at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 30. | BLOOMBERG
Travelers arriving via a Philippine Airlines flight fill out paperwork at a screening area at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 30. | BLOOMBERG

Although the Japanese government had relaxed restrictions on Nov. 8 to accept new entries by foreign business travelers, students and technical trainees, that was put on hold after omicron was detected in South Africa.

Kishida has stressed that the decision was made to avoid a worst-case scenario.

“Our administration thinks that we need to be extra cautious about unknown risks,” he said.

What about those under special circumstances?

The government will permit entries under special exceptional circumstances, including spouses and children of Japanese and permanent residents. Other foreign nationals can be granted entry for humanitarian reasons.

But Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno has said that the government will more strictly manage exceptional cases. For instance, exchange students sponsored by the Japanese government and participants in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) were considered eligible for special exemptions, but Matsuno said they will now be included in the entry ban.

What are the quarantine protocols for returning citizens and foreign residents?

All arrivals will need to isolate for 14 days.

Travelers coming from countries or regions with higher omicron case counts will first need to quarantine for anywhere from three to 10 days at government-designated facilities before quarantining at a place of their choosing for the remainder of the isolation period.

Since the outbreak of the omicron variant, more travelers from high-risk countries and areas have been forced to quarantine at government-designated facilities, according to a health ministry official.

The health ministry has said that people coming from countries and regions where omicron is not known to be spreading will be asked to isolate themselves at home to ensure there is enough room for people coming from countries where the omicron risk is higher.

Health minister Shigeyuki Goto said Friday that the government would increase the number of rooms at designated facilities to 10,000 from about 7,350 the previous week.

Workers wearing protective masks talk to travelers at a COVID-19 testing center at Narita Airport on Nov. 30. | BLOOMBERG
Workers wearing protective masks talk to travelers at a COVID-19 testing center at Narita Airport on Nov. 30. | BLOOMBERG

All travelers also need to provide a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours of their departure.

Arrivals also have to install smartphone apps to report their whereabouts daily during the 14-day isolation period.

What if people are fully vaccinated? Will their quarantine period be shorter?

For now, vaccinated individuals must undergo the same quarantine procedures as nonvaccinated people.

How long will Japan maintain the new entry ban?

The Kishida administration said it will close the border until Dec. 31, but any reopening will likely depend on how widely the omicron variant spreads both overseas and within Japan.

Japan had reported a total of 17 omicron cases as of Tuesday, with the first coming on Nov. 30. All cases have been detected in arriving passengers at airports.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara did not give a clear answer during a news conference last week when asked about the timing of a decision over whether to extend the entry restrictions, only stating that the government will monitor the situation with the omicron variant around the world and respond in an agile manner.

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