Japan to ease border controls amid criticism as exclusionary

Associated PressUpdated: Thursday, February 17, 2022, 02:59 PM IST
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, second left, observes a vaccination site for staff members set up to protect against the coronavirus at the Haneda international airport in Tokyo | AP

Tokyo (Japan): Japan is set to announce easing of its strict border controls by increasing the daily quota for foreign arrivals and shortening the quarantine requirement beginning in March, following criticisms that the country’s policy is unscientific and xenophobic.

Senior officials of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s governing party recently said they are considering raising the daily entry cap to 5,000 from the current 3,500 beginning March 1 as one way of relaxing the border measures for foreign scholars, students and business people. The measure will not include tourists for now.

Shortening the self-isolation period after entry to three days from the currently required seven is being considered, Japanese media reported. Officials are also considering eliminating the self-isolation requirement for non-resident foreigners carrying proof of negative COVID-19 test results and booster shot.

Kishida is expected to announce a plan and explain details at a news conference later Thursday.

Kishida on Saturday said he was considering easing border measures based on a scientific assessment of the omicron variant, infection levels in and outside Japan and quarantine measures taken by other countries.

Most of Japan is currently under virus-related restrictions. Infections only recently started to show signs of slowing, likely because of delayed booster shots.

Nationwide, Japan reported 91,006 new cases on Wednesday, down slightly from a week earlier, after the caseloads exceeded 100,000 on Feb. 5.

But experts say the infections are continuing to burden Japan’s medical systems that tend to be overwhelmed easily because COVID-19 treatment is limited to public or major hospitals.

Japan has become one of the world’s most difficult countries to enter and critics compare it to the “sakoku” locked country policy of xenophobic warlords who ruled Japan in the 17th to 19th centuries.

The current border rules — scheduled to remain in place until the end of February — allow in only Japanese nationals and permanent foreign residents. The policy has raised protests from foreign students and scholars, about 150,000 of whom have been affected.

Japanese and foreign business groups have also protested the government, saying the prolonged border closure has affected investment, business deals, product development and deliveries.

Experts say the rules are hurting Japan’s national interest and further delaying recovery in Japan’s pandemic-hit economy.

Many of the Japanese public have been supportive of the tight border controls as they think troubles such as the pandemic come from outside their island nation. Kishida’s stringent border controls are widely seen as politically motivated to gain public support for his governing party in the upcoming July parliamentary elections.

Kishida’s government, however, faces public criticisms over slow booster vaccine distribution due to a delayed decision to cut intervals between the first two shots and a third to six months from an initially planned eight.

Kishida has set a target to give 1 million doses a day by the end of February.

Only about 12% of Japan’s population have received their third jabs. Experts say the low vaccination rate contributes to a growing number of serious cases and deaths among elderly patients.

While fast-spreading omicron variant is less likely to cause serious cases among younger people, it is increasingly causing serious illness and death among the elderly by deteriorating their underlying illnesses, starting to overwhelm many hospitals.

Kishida is expected to announce other virus measures Thursday, including subsidies to hospitals that accept elderly patients and increased allowances for nursing homes treating their residents instead of sending them to hospitals.

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