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Japan’s strict border policies are finally relaxing — at least a little bit — and from March, new entrants will be allowed to come to the country once again.

Kanako Takahara, head of The Japan Times’ domestic news team, joins Deep Dive to give us the details.

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Kanako Takahara: Articles | Twitter
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Transcript

Note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Oscar Boyd  00:00

AD: Are you looking for a new job? Then today’s sponsor might be right up your alley. Today’s episode is brought to you by RGF Professional Recruitment Japan, the bilingual arm of Recruit — Japan and Asia’s largest recruiting and Information Service Company, helping thousands of people every year to unleash their potential. RGF partners with multinational and domestic businesses with a global outlook in Japan to provide market leading bilingual talent across all industries. Their career consultants ensure that your job search is smooth and stress free, whilst identifying the best opportunities to meet your career and personal goals. RGF specialize in finding positions for skilled professionals across all functions of enterprise technology, professional services and consulting, consumer technology, back office and finance, industrial and manufacturing and healthcare. Visit rgf-professional.jp, to register your resumé and unleash your potential today.

Oscar Boyd  01:11

Hello, and welcome to Deep Dive. From The Japan Times, I’m Oscar Boyd. This week, Japan’s strict border policies are finally relaxing — at least a little bit — and from March, new entrants will be allowed to come to the country once again. Kanako Takahara, head of The Japan Times’ domestic news team, joins Deep Dive to give us the details.

Oscar Boyd  01:37

Kanako, welcome to Deep Dive. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Kanako Takahara  01:40

Thanks for having me. Pleasure to be here.

Oscar Boyd  01:42

Early last week, we got hints that Japan’s border policies would soon be relaxed. And then we were told that Prime Minister Kishida would be holding a news conference on Thursday. You were at that news conference, so could you tell me a bit about what happened and what was announced there?

Kanako Takahara  01:58

Right. It was on Thursday evening, I think it was broadcast live on NHK, and everyone was there. It was packed but staggered in a socially distanced way. And it was the first time that Prime Minister Kishida held a formal press conference since early January.

Oscar Boyd  02:16

So quite a big event?

Kanako Takahara  02:17

It was, and Kishida made three announcements: That the new entries for people who are not tourists will be allowed from March.

[clip] Prime Minister Kishida  02:27

外国人の新規入国については、受入責任者の管理の下、観光目的以外の新規入国者に限って認めることといたします。 Translation: Foreign nationals newly entering Japan will be permitted to enter only for purposes other than sightseeing, under the supervision of the person in charge of receiving them. 

Kanako Takahara  02:42

And also that the quarantine period for all will be shortened to three days from the current seven days. And the number of people allowed in each day will be increased from 3,500 to 5,000.

Oscar Boyd  02:54

Okay, so this is a major shake up to Japan’s border restrictions.

Kanako Takahara  02:57

For Japan, yes, I would say. Maybe not for others, in terms of, you know, international standards, but still. What’s interesting for me was that Kishida was saying that Japan’s border restrictions will remain the strictest among the Group of Seven (G7) nations.

[clip] Prime Minister Kishida  03:14

 引き続きG7で最も厳しい水準は維持しつつ、水際対策の骨格を段階的に緩和していきます。Translation: We will gradually ease the framework of our border measures, while still maintaining the strictest standards among the G7 countries.

Kanako Takahara  03:28

And he was saying it so proudly — that was interesting. It kind of summarized the tone; what the atmosphere is in Japan, because a lot of people still are supportive of Kishida’s border restrictions. So he was trying to assure the public that even if we ease the entry restrictions, it’s still the strictest.

Oscar Boyd  03:50

Right, I remember when the most recent round of restrictions were put in place at the end of November, his poll ratings went through the roof. And something like 89% of the general public supported the fact that they had taken such strict border measures.

Kanako Takahara  04:04

Right. So an NHK poll back in early December showed that about 80% of the public were supportive of the entry restrictions. And that number declined to around 60% earlier this month, but it’s still like 60% of people want the border restrictions in place.

Oscar Boyd  04:25

Yeah, it remains a very high number, and we’ll come back to that a little bit later in the show. But before we go too deep into the specifics of the most recent changes, could you just give us a quick reminder of how Japan’s border policy has changed over the course of the pandemic?

Kanako Takahara  04:39

Sure. It all started around April 2020 that borders were shut. And then it turned out that foreign residents in Japan were not able to re-enter if they were, for instance, going back home to see their relatives, family and friends, and coming back [to Japan]. And that became a really big problem.

Oscar Boyd  05:00

Yes. So this was the strictest period of the entry bans. Where if a foreign resident, such as myself, was to leave the country, they wouldn’t be allowed to return.

Kanako Takahara  05:08

Correct, correct. And that was kind of bizarre. And that continued until around September of that year, so about five months. And that was a huge, huge topic for the foreign community in Japan. And then [the borders] gradually opened up to other business travelers as well, until it was shut down at the end of December, when the alpha variant was detected, and they shut the borders for new entries — not foreign residents — but new entries were all banned. And then that kind of continued for the next 10 months, 10 months or 11 months or so, until Japan’s entry ban was lifted back in November of last year.

Oscar Boyd  05:56

Right and this opening in November, that was the first time since December 2020 that new foreign residents were allowed to come to the country, but because of omicron, which emerged just a couple of weeks later, the opening lasted only about three weeks?

Kanako Takahara  06:10

Three weeks, correct. And then finally, it was last week when Kishida said that, starting March, new entries will be allowed for non-tourist visitors.

Oscar Boyd  06:23

Okay, so who exactly will be allowed to enter from the beginning of March?

Kanako Takahara  06:27

So non-tourists, that would be like foreign students, business travelers, foreign technical interns, foreign researchers, but not people who want to just come in for pleasure.

Oscar Boyd  06:42

Okay. And what do these people need to do to be able to come into the country?

Kanako Takahara  06:47

So they need a sponsor, meaning like, if you are a foreign student a university would be the sponsor, and for business travelers then it’ll be like companies, for instance. And they will make sure that you know all the rules of quarantine if you need it. And then make sure that if you have some kind of COVID symptoms, then you’ll be able to seek medical attention. Because a lot of these new people coming in, don’t necessarily have a home, or kind of like a network in Japan, [so this will mean] that they’ll be able to go see a doctor for instance.

Oscar Boyd  07:37

You said earlier that Prime Minister Kishida seemed proud to announce that even despite these most recent relaxations, Japan still has the strictest border restrictions out of all the G7 countries. And also that the public is still in support of border restrictions. So what prompted Kishida and the government to relax the border measures and allow new entrants again from March?

Kanako Takahara  07:59

Well two points, I guess. Businesses — foreign and domestic business lobby groups — were really pushing Kishida to open the borders for business travelers. Keidanren has been pushing repeatedly.

Oscar Boyd  08:14

And this is the main business lobby in Japan?

Kanako Takahara  08:17

Right. So they’re saying that it’s tantamount to the isolation policy back in the Edo period when Japan closed for nearly 200 years back in the 1600s. So yeah, that was quite shocking. And also there are a lot of foreign students lobbying as well. And that was channeled into the LDP — the ruling party — which Kishida heads. The LDP was also pushing Kishida to open the borders, because a lot of these foreign students were giving up and changing their destination to other countries, like, for instance, South Korea. And they were concerned about that.

Oscar Boyd  09:02

That people were giving up on Japan because of this policy and moving to other countries and living there instead?

Kanako Takahara  09:07

They were saying that these would-be foreign students coming to study in Japan would be like a very friendly ambassador to Japan in the future. So not giving them the chance to study in Japan would be damaging for Japan’s international reputation..

Oscar Boyd  09:26

So who did we see speaking out about this topic within Kishida’s party?

Kanako Takahara  09:31

Well, there was definitely the LDP Policy Committee Chairman on Education, a politician called Yamamoto, and there was also Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, also speaking out and saying that foreign students should be allowed in. So these two parties.

Oscar Boyd  09:52

And how much does the fact that Japan has actually gone through its own pretty significant wave of omicron cases play into this decision to open the borders? Because previously it seemed like Japan was closing its borders to keep the variant out. But once omicron was established here, and we were seeing 100,000 cases a day nationwide, it doesn’t really make sense to keep that policy up in the same way. So how much did the change of the medical situation in Japan affect the decision to relax the borders?

Kanako Takahara  10:20

Right. From the start, Kishida and the government were saying that because the infection situation in Japan and other countries were significantly different — in the way that omicron cases were not so much detected in Japan but there were a lot of cases in other countries — so it made sense to close the borders for the time being. But as more cases were reported, from January and on — and we saw at the peak 100,000 cases a day — the assumption was that there are so many cases in Japan, that if the situation in Japan and other countries is basically the same, it doesn’t really make sense to keep the borders shut. And that, of course, affected Kishida’s decision.

Oscar Boyd  11:12

So how many people do we know are currently waiting to enter the country?

Kanako Takahara  11:16

We don’t know the exact number. But for foreign students, the Immigration Services Agency is saying up to 150,000 students have been issued visas, and are waiting to come to Japan. But maybe some of them have already changed their minds, and some decided to go to another career or career path. But that’s what the government data shows. But we don’t know about, for instance, business travelers, or foreign workers who need to be posted in Japan.

Oscar Boyd  11:53

Right, so 150,000 students. And then on top of that, we have everyone who has potentially got a work placement in Japan who is hoping to move here.

Kanako Takahara  12:02

Foreign researchers, foreign company executives, for instance.

Oscar Boyd  12:07

So there’s going to be far more than 150,000 people who are waiting to come in.

Kanako Takahara  12:11

Yeah, yeah. 

Oscar Boyd  12:12

And under these new policies, how quickly will they be able to come into Japan? 

Kanako Takahara  12:16

Well we don’t know yet. The health ministry is going to brief reporters probably next week to get more of the nuts and bolts on what’s going to happen with the entire system. But the sponsors, which means universities and companies, need to apply and submit an application online beforehand. I would think that it’s going to be a trickle of people coming in at first, I wouldn’t expect from March 1 that there’ll be tens of thousands coming in to Japan.

Oscar Boyd  12:50

And for the reason also that there’s still this daily entry cap in place, right, which will be increased to 5,000 people per day. And that’s not 5000 new people, right? That’s 5,000 people total coming from overseas into Japan. So it could include existing foreign residents and Japanese citizens.

Kanako Takahara  13:08

Japanese nationals, yeah!. So a bump in 1,500 wouldn’t be that much. So what foreign businesses and universities and Keidanren were urging is to increase that cap, so that there’ll be more people allowed to come into Japan. And one medical expert that I interviewed was saying that there is no real scientific sense to keep the cap anymore, because there are so many omicron cases detected in Japan.

Oscar Boyd  13:39

In November when they relaxed the border policies, and they still had the sponsorship system in place, I remember there were a lot of complaints about how tricky that sponsorship system was to navigate. The amount of paperwork that had to be done, had to be filled in by universities and businesses, etc, to bring people in. And that actually caused a massive delay, and effectively shortened that three week window where the borders were open to almost zero days, because everyone was just filling out paperwork for that period of time. So very, very few people indeed could come into the country even when the window was open. Has that system been simplified this time round, so that once the borders do open from March, people will be able to come in a little bit quicker?

Kanako Takahara  14:18

Yeah, I think so. That’s what the government is saying. Back in November, when the borders were open for about three weeks, universities or other sponsors were required to submit some kind of an activity plan to show where these new entrants would be staying, and what they are doing during that two-week period. And they needed to do that beforehand. And that caused a lot of complaints from universities, from companies, about how and what to do with those and how it’s time consuming. Now [the government is] saying they’re not going to ask them to do that. They don’t need to submit that, they are going to simplify procedures. But we’ll see more details in the coming week.

Oscar Boyd  15:07

Okay. Okay. And so what about people who don’t have a sponsor, you know, people who are maybe hoping to reunite with loved ones living here or family members. Will they be able to come in under the new policies?

Kanako Takahara  15:18 

I don’t think so. I guess if they don’t have sponsors, then they will not be allowed. Which means people like relatives, families, friends, who want to enter Japan to meet their loved ones would not be allowed in for now. I was talking to one of the editors at The Japan Times last week, or the week before. And he was saying that he had a daughter born last October, and he wanted his parents back in Canada to come meet their granddaughter. But because of the entry ban that’s not going to happen. And they were actually contemplating meeting in a third country, which is bizarre. So these kind of, you know, sad stories, I don’t think they will be allowed in for now. But fingers crossed, they will be able to do that in the coming months.

Oscar Boyd  16:26

Obviously a lot of people over the last two years have been affected massively by these border restrictions. And I think the kind of back and forth on these, you know, going between open and closed over and over again, has been particularly anxiety inducing for a lot of people. How have people who have been affected by the border policies in Japan reacted to this relaxation of the borders?

Kanako Takahara  16:49

So there was a support group for foreign students who want to come into Japan. And they did a survey back in January, and about 40% of them were saying that if they cannot enter Japan by April, which is the start of the academic year in Japan, that they will switch to another country, or they would give up coming to Japan entirely. 

Oscar Boyd  17:16

Wow 40% is a very high number. 

Kanako Takahara  17:17

I think they’ve been in limbo for so long. So that’s gonna mess up their life really bad. So I would understand why they would think that way.

Oscar Boyd  17:30

So how have these people reacted to the fact that there is kind of like a chink in the border, a little bit of light coming through that means they might be able to come to the country fairly soon.

Kanako Takahara  17:40

So they are relieved about the border restrictions being eased. But they’re really not sure if they’re going to be able to come to Japan by April or anytime soon. They’re cautiously optimistic, I would say, because of what has been the case for the past two years, when [the country] opened borders, and then closed them shut weeks later. There is kind of skepticism in the air.

Oscar Boyd  17:40

So people are worried that something could happen again to shut the borders. 

Kanako Takahara  18:17

Right. 

Oscar Boyd  18:18

And how likely a scenario is that to happen? Have the government said at this point, you know, that if, say, another variant of the virus came along that is more contagious or more deadly, would they consider shutting down the path to new entries again?

Kanako Takahara  18:34

I would think so yes, because that’s what happened with omicron, and they shut the borders pretty quickly. And I guess that became the precedent. And if we see another very contagious, very deadly, very dangerous variant outbreak worldwide, then Japan would probably do what they did for omicron.

Oscar Boyd  18:59

One of Kishida’s announcements was to shorten the quarantine requirements for people coming or returning to Japan, from seven down to just three days, which is a pretty dramatic turnaround from the 14-day quarantine we saw not that long ago. So could you explain the new quarantine rules?

Kanako Takahara  19:15

Yeah, I was really surprised that they would do that. Because that’s been a headache for a lot of people and where you come from, am I the seven day period person or six day period person, 10 day period person, that’s all confusing. If it’s shortened to three days, the life of people would be easier, I guess. And it’s the same for people who are not vaccinated or vaccinated with two shots. So even if you are not vaccinated, you would be able to shorten the period to three days given that you have tested negative on day three.

Oscar Boyd  20:03

Okay, and so people still have to take a test before coming to Japan, and then they have to test at the airport still, and then they have to test on day three to be released from their quarantine?

Kanako Takahara  20:13

Correct. Before you come to Japan, you have to test negative within 72 hours before you come back to Japan. And then you’ll be tested at the airport, and then you can go to your home or venue of your choosing. And then on day three, if you test negative, then you’re free to go. But if you don’t take that test, you will still need to quarantine for seven days. That’s the default.

Oscar Boyd  20:44

Okay. And as part of this, the bit that I was really surprised to read is that they said you would now be allowed to take public transport from airports back to the place that you’re quarantining. Is that correct? 

Kanako Takahara  20:56

That’s correct. 

Oscar Boyd  20:57

Right, because this was hugely expensive. I went to the U.K. in September and came back and I chose to go to Haneda because it was closer to my home, but it was still ¥12,000 or so to get a private taxi back to my house because I wasn’t allowed to take public transport. So I was very surprised that they were going to allow that level of freedom. People just arriving in the airport and taking public transport straight to their house.

Kanako Takahara  21:19

Yeah, I think people living in Tokyo were in a better position than people who live in Hokkaido, for instance, because they’re not allowed to take a domestic flight. So I wonder what they’ve been doing to go back to their home? Would they be renting a car?

Oscar Boyd  21:37

I’ve seen stories of people renting cars. I’ve seen stories of people renting a two-week apartment in Tokyo and then doing the quarantine in Tokyo so that they could take a flight or the shinkansen up to Hokkaido. Otherwise yeah, to take a private taxi to Hokkaido, about 1,000km north, is going to bankrupt a lot of people. 

Kanako Takahara  21:57

So that’s going to be a huge, huge difference for people who are coming to Japan. That they’ll be able to take the shinkansen to go to Kyushu. Because there are limited airports that accept international flights. I think Haneda, Narita and Kansai are the three of them right now. So it’s going to be a huge, huge difference.

Oscar Boyd  22:21

Yeah, for people who live far from those airports, it’s going to make life much easier. And you mentioned that if you’re either unvaccinated or you’ve had two doses of the vaccine, you will be eligible for this three day quarantine period if you take the test on the third day. What about people who’ve received a third dose of the vaccine, a booster shot?

Kanako Takahara  22:40

So for people who have been boosted that are arriving from a country where it’s not an omicron hotspot, they will be exempt from quarantine, which means you don’t have to quarantine at all. Which is quite a big policy change if you ask me. But if you are coming from an omicron hotspot, which is the case for a majority of the Western countries, then you will be allowed to quarantine at home for three days instead of quarantining at a designated facility.

Oscar Boyd  23:12

Okay, so rather than flying from the UK, say, and staying in a government hotel for three days and then being released, you’ll be allowed to do that quarantine period at home if you’ve been boosted. 

Kanako Takahara  23:23

Right.

Oscar Boyd  23:24

Okay. I mean it does sound like for returning travelers, and I guess this will apply to new people coming to Japan as well, things are becoming a lot easier. It’ll be a lot smoother to get into the country with much reduced quarantine periods. I guess the final category, and I know you said this, or I guess Kishida said this very clearly, was that tourists will not be allowed to come in under these new restrictions. Is there any update from the government about when international tourism to Japan might be able to resume?

Kanako Takahara  23:53
No, no. But Kishida was saying that he will continue to consider

[clip] Prime Minister Kishida  24:00

今後段階的に見直しを検討していく中で、観光目的の入国の再開時期について検討していきたい。 Translation: While considering a step-by-step review in the future, I would like to consider when to resume entry for tourism purposes.

Kanako Takahara  24:13

He also said that this was the first step for easing the border controls. So hopefully, if the cases go down considerably in the coming months, tourists will be the next step. Hopefully, yes.

Oscar Boyd  24:30

Kanako, thank you very much for joining me today.

Kanako Takahara  24:33

Thank you very much for having me.

Oscar Boyd  24:41

That was Kanako Takahara. Many thanks to her for joining me, and a transcript of this episode can be found on The Japan Times’ website, where you’ll also find all the latest on the border situation as it develops. 

Also in The Japan Times this week, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Wednesday that Japan will implement economic sanctions against Russia and two pro-Russian separatist regions in eastern Ukraine after Moscow formally recognized the areas and ordered the deployment of troops there. Further sanctions are also being considered. 

In COVID-19 news, Japan is approaching its target of an average of 1 million COVID-19 booster shots per day, although the rollout is still well behind the government’s goal of providing boosters to 30% of the country by the end of February. 

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