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Over the past few months, Japan has been slowly easing its COVID-19 related border restrictions. In March, after almost two years, it started allowing in students, academics and business people. Then in April, parents and immediate relatives of foreign residents were allowed to enter the country.

But the borders are still closed to tourists, a broad category of people that includes everyone from leisure travelers to the unmarried partners of residents of Japan. This week on Deep Dive, Kanako Takahara joins to discuss when Japan might reopen to international tourism, and what form that reopening might take.

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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  00:09

Hello and welcome to Deep Dive. From The Japan Times, I’m Oscar Boyd. 

Over the past few months, Japan has been slowly easing its COVID-19 related border restrictions. In March, after almost two years, it started allowing in students, academics and business people. Then in April, parents and immediate relatives of foreign residents were allowed to enter the country. But the borders are still closed to tourists, a broad category of people that includes everyone from leisure travelers to the unmarried partners of residents of Japan. This week on Deep Dive, Kanako Takahara, The Japan Times’ head of domestic news, joins me to discuss when Japan might reopen to international tourism, and what that reopening might look like.

Oscar Boyd  00:57

Kanako Takahara, welcome back to Deep Dive.

Kanako Takahara  01:00

Thanks for having me, Oscar.

Oscar Boyd  01:02

We’ve just returned from Golden Week, a week of public holidays when many people take time off work to go and travel, visit their parents, visit their relatives. Could you describe what we saw in terms of domestic tourism over the last week?

Kanako Takahara  01:15

Yes, a lot of people traveled domestically and also internationally. At airports, there were throngs of people waiting for flights going to, for instance, Hawaii. And a lot of the train stations were packed with travelers who wanted to go to see their parents, their grandparents. Airline bookings from April 29 to May 8, were 1.7 times higher from the previous year for domestic flights, and 4.7 times higher for international flights. And also, according to Japan Railway Companies, the number of passengers using trains was 2.4 times the number compared with Golden Week last year. That’s huge. I was traveling to Kamakura, in Kanagawa Prefecture, during the Golden Week holidays and I was seeing signs of heavy traffic, ‘20 kilometers heavy traffic’ or even 40. That’s like the usual Golden Week holidays pre pandemic. I was thinking, ‘the pandemic is over.’ 

Oscar Boyd  02:20

It is the first Golden week we’ve had since 2019 where large parts of Japan haven’t been under a state of emergency.

Kanako Takahara  02:27

Right. I remember, I think it was last year’s golden week holiday, or maybe the year before. Me and my family, we didn’t really have anything to do and we were asked to stay at home. So we went to the riverbank and just played with the kids when nobody was there. That was it for the Golden Week holidays. That’s the extent of the leisure that we had. So it was pretty different this year.

Oscar Boyd  02:52

So it really feels like domestic tourism is getting back on its feet in Japan, even if numbers aren’t quite as high as they were pre pandemic. What’s the story with international tourism?

Kanako Takahara  03:02

Right now, international tourists are not allowed to come in yet. In March, Japan opened its borders to foreign students, academics, and business travelers who have sponsors in Japan. And since then people have been wondering, when will international tourists be able to come to Japan? And we don’t know yet.

Oscar Boyd  03:24

And Japan is one of only a handful of countries worldwide to have such a strict policy that prevents international tourism. And it’s the only member of the G7 right to do so.

Kanako Takahara  03:33

Yes, the U.K., for example, doesn’t have any restrictions anymore for international travelers. So it’s a big difference compared to that.

Oscar Boyd  03:41

When we look at the data for the numbers of international tourists to Japan over the past couple of years, what does that show?

Kanako Takahara  03:48

Well, in 2019, there were 32 million travelers who came to Japan and in 2021, there were only 250,000 travelers. So you don’t really see any foreign tourists anywhere. Before the pandemic there were a lot of tourists in Ginza, Akihabara and Sensoji, in Tokyo. And also in places like Kyoto, all those tourist destinations. But now you don’t see any of them.

Oscar Boyd  04:19

Yeah, I was in Kyoto over Golden Week. And it was really interesting, because it felt almost as crowded as it had been pre-pandemic. But it was only really domestic tourists and there were very, very few non-Japanese faces in the mix. How has the government continued to justify the ban on international tourists, especially now that so many other countries around the world have reopened their borders to tourism?

Kanako Takahara  04:43

Well, I think the big part was a concern that the number of people infected in Japan compared with other countries – there is a big difference. Japan, has had a low number of people infected compared to Western countries, And because of that, I think it made sense for Japan to try to limit the number of people coming in Japan, because if they could stop it at the border, then they could restrict the number of infections in Japan. And also, I think the government has been very concerned about getting the third shot, the booster shot to elderly people, because they are the high risk people. And until the end of March, there were still people who wanted to get vaccinated with the booster shot. Because Japan was slow in the start of vaccination in the first place compared to Western countries, I think booster shots were also delayed compared to other countries. And that was also a concern.

Oscar Boyd  05:48

It may seem like a really obvious question, but who is actually affected by the ban on tourists?

Kanako Takahara  05:55

Well, definitely international tourists who want to come to Japan for pleasure. But also people like partners, girlfriends, boyfriends, or extended family want to see their relatives in Japan. Parents and direct family members can come to Japan, if they get the right visa, but extended family members won’t be able to come to Japan, even though they might not have been able to see their family members for years since the start of the pandemic.

Oscar Boyd  06:30

I think that’s one of the major frustrations for both people in Japan and outside the country who are hoping to come here. That even after two years of the pandemic, even after getting vaccinated and all these treatments coming on board, that they are still so disconnected from their loved ones by these strict border policies. You recently wrote an article on the costs of the international tourism ban on businesses in Japan. Could you explain some of those impacts?

Kanako Takahara  06:56

Well, the ban has hit the hospitality sector, particularly restaurants, hotels and airlines. Those kinds of industries have been hit very hard since the start of the pandemic. One Kansai University professor puts the loss stemming from the lack of foreign visitors at about ¥11 trillion in 2020 alone, suggesting that over the two years, the loss would be about ¥22 trillion. And that’s huge.

Oscar Boyd  07:25

And ¥22 trillion yen equates to about $170 billion. How significant is that in terms of Japan’s entire economy?

Kanako Takahara  07:34

Right. So Japan’s economy in 2021 was about ¥541 trillion. So compared to that, the loss would be about 2% of GDP. So that’s huge. You know, Japan has been trying to boost the economy through foreign travelers, and former Prime Minister Suga was the one who has been spearheading the move to increase foreign tourists to Japan for the past five or six years. Japan had been trying to attract about 60 million foreign visitors by 2030, but the pandemic derailed that plan.

Oscar Boyd  08:17

Right, as you said, it went from 32 million travelers in 2019, down to just 250,000 in 2021.

Kanako Takahara  08:24

Right, and on top of that, the weak yen would usually attract foreign tourists, but because of the closed borders, Japan can’t cash in on it now.

Oscar Boyd  08:47

You mentioned earlier that the government was waiting for the booster shot to be distributed amongst the elderly population before it wanted to consider opening the borders. Does that mean that the government has some kind of roadmap for how it wants to proceed?

Kanako Takahara  09:04

They may have it internally, but publicly? No. That’s the problem, I think, with Japan. And it was the same when foreign students and business travelers were allowed in. Before that, we didn’t see any kind of roadmap. And when it happened, it happened so suddenly. Like in the last two weeks or so, they were suddenly allowed and they were scrambling for paperwork and everything. I think that could be the case for international tourists as well. And that, even if the government has it internally, maybe they won’t disclose it, and they’ll do it all of a sudden.

Oscar Boyd  09:47

Well, on that point. Last Friday, we did see, all of a sudden, media reports that Japan will begin experimenting with very limited international tourism as early as the end of this month. What are the details on that?

Kanako Takahara  10:01

So there hasn’t been any official announcement yet. But Fuji News Network reported that the government may start experimenting with small package tours. Because if you have a guide, then they will be responsible for that group. It’s like having a sponsor, a sponsored tour in Japan, and people would have that person with responsibility to navigate things if they get infected.

Oscar Boyd  10:32

So the government really wants someone to be responsible for the inbound international tourists. The other detail that I remember seeing in the report was that anyone arriving on these experimental tours would have to have had a full course and booster shots of various approved vaccines, is that correct? 

Kanako Takahara  10:50

Yes. 

Oscar Boyd  10:51

Okay, so yeah packaged tours… If that’s the model that Japan uses going forward, it’s not exactly the country throwing its doors open to the world, or a full resumption of normal pre-pandemic tourism.

Kanako Takahara  11:03

It will still be some time before people can just hop on the plane, come to Japan, and then backpack through Japan, I think.

Oscar Boyd  11:12

Right, or even just make minor detours to go to an interesting restaurant or bar, or head off the main tourist track to some fun back alley somewhere, which I think is half the fun of coming to Japan and exploring the country. As well as the news of experimental tours over Golden Week, we saw Prime Minister Kishida give a speech in London, where he said that in June, Japan will introduce a smoother entry process, similar to that of other G7 members. A lot of people and media have taken that statement to mean that there will be a full resumption of tourism in Japan from June, but as far as I’m aware, that’s not been confirmed. When might we find out more about that?

Kanako Takahara  11:50

I would say later this month, hopefully. We’re all looking closely at that news and when that will come. I think it depends on whether the new daily cases will rise after the Golden Week holidays. The government wants to make sure that it’s within the manageable figure, and that they can go ahead with opening up to international tourists. But it may still be in phases before that happens.

Oscar Boyd  12:23

Right. And I guess one of the main limiting factors on the normal resumption of tourism will be the fact that there is still set to be a daily entry cap of only 20,000 people entering the country per day in June. That’s the highest it’s been since the pandemic began, but still far lower than the number of people that were entering Japan on a daily basis pre-pandemic.

Kanako Takahara  12:45

Right. Pre-pandemic, there were approximately 90,000 inbound travelers per day. So even if it’s bumped up 20,000, it’s still far less than the pre-pandemic levels.

Oscar Boyd  12:59

You said that the estimated cost of this international travel ban was about ¥22 trillion over two years. How much pressure is there within Japan at the moment for the country to open to international tourism?

Kanako Takahara  13:12

At present, I think Keidanren, which is the Japan Business Federation, a business lobby group, has been pushing for Japan to reopen its borders to international tourists. Keidanren and four other business leaders proposed in a statement to a government panel in April that Japan needs to reopen its borders to tourists in phases if COVID cases are coming down. And there’s also the fact that during the Golden Week holidays, Japanese tourists were going abroad, and Japan needs to reciprocate to those destination countries as well.

Oscar Boyd  13:57

Yeah, that’s been a second big frustration surrounding Japan’s tourism ban: that Japanese citizens and even foreign residents at this point can go to other countries and return to Japan as they please, but it’s not possible for people from other countries to come to Japan. And that’s been particularly unfair and harmful for people separated from their loved ones.

Kanako Takahara  14:18

Correct, and during the Golden Week holidays I was at home watching TV and there were all sorts of TV programs airing about how people are going to Hawaii now during the Golden Week holidays — how the sun and the blue sky and the oceans are so beautiful.  Back maybe a couple of months ago, I think TV wouldn’t have aired those kinds of shows because of a fear of a backlash. So them airing those programs and then people watching it with admiration means that people are warming up to that sentiment of going abroad, thinking it’s okay to travel now and it means that they can be more welcome to international tourists.

Oscar Boyd  15:08

I think that moves us on nicely to talking about public sentiment. How is the Japanese public currently thinking about border restrictions?

Kanako Takahara  15:16

So in a media poll conducted over the weekend, 48% of respondents said border restrictions should be eased. While 38% said they should not be eased. Watching over these polls over the months, it was much higher, back in December, for instance,

Oscar Boyd  15:36

More people in December were saying that the border should remain shut?

Kanako Takahara  15:40

Yes, should remain closed. And in March, it became lower, and now it’s a little bit lower again. But I would say that probably elderly people who are at high risk of getting severe symptoms, and who would not necessarily travel outside Japan, are still concerned about having a flood of international tourists coming to Japan. They are thinking it could be a risk to their health, for instance.

Oscar Boyd  16:11

They’re not necessarily seeing any immediate benefit from the resumption of international tourism, but are seeing lots of potential risks?

Kanako Takahara  16:18

Right. I think also, the elderly people are the ones who will go to the polling station when the Upper House election is held in July. And I would say that Prime Minister Kishida’s administration, and the ruling LDP, also has that in mind. They don’t want cases to go up and then for it to become a backlash for their party and affect the election results. I think they definitely have that in mind.

Oscar Boyd  16:59

What do you think are the main challenges or concerns about restarting international tourism?

Kanako Takahara  17:04

As I said, I think one of the key points was that the elderly still weren’t vaccinated with the booster shot until around the end of March. Now, for people who are over 65, 80 to 90%, have been given the booster shot. So now, they have better protection against the virus. Also, during the sixth wave, the concern was that the healthcare system would be overwhelmed, and that there wouldn’t be enough hospital staff to treat patients if need be.

Oscar Boyd  17:44

Is there a concern over the behavior of international tourists coming to Japan? Because the most obvious example would be looking at the culture of wearing masks in Japan, which is very, very different to the mask wearing culture in, say, the U.K. or the U.S. Do you think that will be a challenge for Japan if it does resume international tourism?

Kanako Takahara  18:06

If it does, I think definitely. Among my friends, I would say nobody feels comfortable taking off their masks outside of their homes when they’re going out. So if there are a lot of tourists coming to Japan, and going out and about without masks, then there could be some worries among the Japanese people or residents in Japan, and there could be some hard feelings toward them. So if it happens, I would think that the government would advise tourists to wear masks, and try to respect the sentiment of Japanese culture.

Oscar Boyd  18:49

But it’s going to be hard to enforce.

Kanako Takahara  18:52

That’s going to be a challenge, I would say.

Oscar Boyd  18:54

When we look back at the other border restrictions that have existed and then been eased over time, we’ve seen examples of Japan opening its borders and then rapidly shutting them when there’s been a new variant. For example, with Omicron, they shut the borders to students and business travelers again, very, very suddenly. If the borders do open to tourists, do you think that still remains a risk? that borders may shut all of a sudden to people coming in for tourism purposes?

Kanako Takahara  19:25

That is a possibility. But I would say the possibility is lower than before because now Japan and other countries have been vaccinated and they have the protection and they have the antiviral drugs as well. So they have the means to deal with it compared to like a year ago or two years ago. So it’s not like they need to shut the borders immediately and then keep them shut until they know what’s happening.

Oscar Boyd  19:58

Do you think this might be playing into the government’s decision making, though, when it thinks of a date that the country might open? That they’re being very, very conservative? They don’t want to open the borders prematurely, and then find that they need to shut them again.

Kanako Takahara  20:12

Yeah, I would say Japan has been taking conservative steps since the start of the pandemic. And even though they reopen, or they make policy changes, they make them in baby steps. So I would say they want other countries to start doing it first, and then they monitor it and see how it goes and then gradually make that change in Japan. Among G7 countries or other major countries, Japan is the last in line to make the policy changes, I would say.

Oscar Boyd  20:48

So from everything that’s been reported on the last week, it seems fairly likely at least that Japan will open its borders to tourism in some form from June, assuming that there’s no catastrophic rise in cases here associated with Golden Week. I know that making predictions is a dangerous game, especially on this topic, but if international tourism is allowed to resume in June, how do you think it would play out?

Kanako Takahara  21:10

I think it will be in phases, first with small amounts of, as we said, package tours. And then if that doesn’t significantly increase the cases in Japan, then they would expand it to more individual tourists. So maybe in the fall, or by the end of the year, we may see many tourists coming to Japan. It will, I would say, happen in baby steps.

Oscar Boyd  21:43

Kanako, thank you very much.

Kanako Takahara  21:44

Thanks Oscar.

Oscar Boyd  21:57

That was Kaniko Takahara. My thanks to her as always for joining me and I’ve linked her recent articles in the show notes for more information. 

Also in The Japan Times this week: During an interview on Tuesday, senior LDP lawmaker, Hiroshige Seko, said that he believed Japan should end its policy of capping daily arrivals from overseas and allow a free flow of tourists and businesspeople. He said travelers who have received three vaccine doses should be allowed entry, but be required to wear masks in line with government advice. The government has also confirmed that it plans to lift the daily entry cap to 20,000 entrants per day from the start of June, double that of the current daily limit of 10,000 per day. Those stories and all the latest from Japan on The Japan Times website.   

That’s it for this episode. Thank you to all of you who have recently taken the time to review the show, it’s always a pleasure to read your feedback. I had additional production help on this one from Shaun McKenna. Thanks as always for listening, and until next time, podtsukaresama.