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Opinion

Japan must consider easing its COVID-19 travel ban

It is a necessary inconvenience for now but is hurting its economy and reputation

| Japan
An empty terminal of Tokyo International Airport, pictured on Apr. 29: it is too costly to close up.   © Reuters

Dr. Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi (World Peace) Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.

As the July heat rises in Japan, so too will international impatience heat up over Japan's shuttered national border. From the outside looking in, there seems to be no rational plan in place to ease the travel ban.

On July 1, Japan added another 18 countries to its ban, now totaling 129. It was first put in place on April 3 and in the last three months the ban has placed foreign nationals with Japanese working visas in a COVID-19 waiting game, able to leave but unable to return.

At its core, Japan's travel ban model makes sense to prevent new cases arriving. But international grumblings toward Japan's travel ban are not surprising, especially on the U.S. side of the Pacific. The powerful American Chamber of Commerce in Japan lobby has led the call for Japan to emulate its Group of Seven allies and ease travel restrictions, not add more countries to its ban list.

It is too costly to close up. Even though foreign tourists to Japan are the lowest priority under the travel ban, they will be welcomed back eventually. In 2019, foreign tourists spent a record 4.8 trillion yen ($45 billion) in Japan.

Japan has tentatively announced easing restrictions for business travelers such as executives and engineers, but only from a few other Asian countries deemed safe. What is the rationale for the Japanese government prioritizing foreign businesspeople over foreign students? Are people in the business category any less likely to be infected?

It sends the wrong message to the world that Japan will offer white-glove treatment to those most likely to succeed in recharging Japan's economy. Those not promoting global business ties, like mass tourists or international exchange students, must feel like below-deck passengers.

But they contribute to the economy just as much, if not more, with their enthusiasm for all things Japan. Their roles as intercultural citizen ambassadors should not be taken lightly.

On the same day that Japan expanded its travel ban by 18 countries, the EU was lifting travel restrictions on 15 countries ahead of the traditional summer holiday season. The Louvre, the most visited museum in the world, emerged from a four-month lockdown at one-fifth capacity on July 6. Visitors need masks and floor markers keep everyone at a safe distance. Slowly, the world is welcoming foreign visitors.

Reopening of the Louvre after a four-month lockdown on July 6: visitors need masks and floor markers keep everyone at a safe distance.   © Sipa/AP

Japan should not look at the global community as a threat, only the coronavirus. The government of Japan needs to work with the scientific and public health sectors to come up with a safety-first plan that includes PCR tests, 14-day self-quarantine, and mandatory contact tracing apps for one's movements.

It would not be too unusual for a country to ask incoming visitors to sign a pledge to follow pandemic cultural norms and requirements while inside the country -- masks and avoiding handshakes prime among them. This is what respectful guests do when in someone else's home.

The reality for Japan is that it cannot afford to remain closed for business, education or tourism for too long. Every country in the world knows this. The novel coronavirus is that uninvited party guest who shows up and won't leave when asked. Life goes on and the coronavirus goes along with it in various rates of infection and mortality.

Since March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic, we have been living with what seems like a global nightmare. It is reasonable for Japan to be a model of slow-going with reopening its borders. But it also needs to keep its eyes on the prize -- defeating the virus, not the person.

With proper guidance, personal responsibility and cluster tracing, it can reopen not just for business class, but for leisure and education too.

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