Visitors are allowed again, but there are strings attached
Finally, after two hermetically sealed years, the Japanese government will lift its blanket ban on tourists on 10th June. But before you start planning your trip to the land of the rising sun (and sinking yen — thanks partly to the ban) be aware, there are catches aplenty.
For a start, its tour groups can only be from the 98 countries the government has deemed ‘low risk’. Independent travellers, wherever they come from, remain barred. That excludes a huge number of potential visitors who don’t want to spend their trip shepherded around by a flag-toting guide, or would prefer to choose where and when they eat, or where they stay.
And it’s masks on — at all times. This one is a bit weird as the Japanese government has been making tentative efforts to wean people off face coverings of late, at least when you are not chatting. This has not been due to any latent Covid scepticism, but out of fear that with seriously hot weather approaching, it might not be a great idea to walk around with your face swathed in cotton. Thousand of people are hospitalised due to heat exhaustion each year in Japan so the advice makes sense, but the consideration does not apparently extend to foreign visitors.
Also curious is that tour companies are being told not to take their clients to areas with large numbers of people…like tourist attractions. Meiji Jingu shrine, Tokyo tower, and Disneyland may be struck off the itinerary then.
Tour guides will be instructed to closely ‘monitor’ their groups, and at the first cough or splutter, to isolate them. They are also being instructed to keep a close eye on trouble-makers (i.e. anyone not wearing a mask or not sanitising their hands). They too will be identified and may be summarily ejected.
It’s hard not to feel this singling out of foreigner visitors a bit disturbing. Although mask wearing and hand sanitising remains obsessive in Japan, it is all voluntary. There are virtually no restrictions left and if you do want to walk around maskless, it is most unlikely anyone will challenge you. Why should visitors from countries declared safe, who have submitted negative PCR tests to qualify for entry, and paid thousands of pounds for their tour, be treated not just as cash cows but as lab rats too?
There are two reasons: politics and bureaucracy. It has been startling to witness how popular the ban on tourists has been; PM Fumio Kishida has been enjoying historically high approval ratings, and with Upper House elections in July there seems little point in changing a winning formula. What’s more, a whole industry has been created around the enforcement of a bewilderingly complex set of regulations with thousands employed and a huge budget. Dismantling that and redeploying the staff, in a country where government employees are almost never laid off, is not easy, or, for those in power, necessarily desirable.
But Kishida had to do something: he has faced heavy criticism from the tourism sector with visitor numbers down 90% from pre-pandemic times; and grumblings from overseas, with Japan retaining some of the strictest Covid entry requirements of the G7.
Given the niggardly welcome, initial numbers aren’t likely to be huge. If all goes well, his partial reopening will be declared a success and little by little the restrictions will be dropped. And if all doesn’t go well, the government will try to limit the damage by blaming the tourism sector lobbyists.
My advice to anyone contemplating Japan for a holiday is to hold off until all restrictions have been removed and traditional Japanese hospitality has been fully restored. When that will be is anyone’s guess. Mine is a short period after the elections have been successfully concluded.