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Opinion

Japan should rethink its ineffective travel ban

Rules limiting foreign visitors no longer serve their intended purpose

| Japan
People cross a street in Shinjuku area on Aug. 5: the new delta variant is already well established here, and there is no chance of keeping it out.   © Getty Images

Benjamin Knopp is marketing chair for EO Tokyo Metropolitan and co-founder of Kurashu.jp.

An international investor I know bought a commercial building in Tokyo for some $16 million last year but has still not been allowed into Japan to manage the details surrounding the purchase.

Another woman I know invested in a Tokyo apartment but has been unable to enter the country to set up a bank account and take possession, costing her months of rental income. Anecdotes like this repeat themselves over and again.

Japan's travel ban, which prevents most international visitors from entering the country, is hurting both its reputation and its economy. This vigilant approach served Japan well in the early days of the pandemic, no doubt helping to save thousands of lives.

But with new evidence suggesting that travel bans set up to halt the spread of COVID-19 work only in a limited capacity, Japan should open its borders and allow business travel and limited tourism to resume.

It is understandable that when COVID-19 first appeared, when the world did not yet know what it was dealing with, strict travel bans were needed to slow down the spread of the virus. At that time, Japan's policymakers acted with insight and intelligence, basing restrictions on simulations completed by the world's fastest supercomputer, Fugaku.

This enabled Japan to have more freedoms than most other developed countries. Restaurants generally remained open, and so did movie theaters. Subways were deemed relatively safe with enough ventilation. Drinking alcohol in restaurants and bars was considered risky because by lowering inhibitions it increased the chance of people spreading the virus in confined spaces.

Rules were based on probabilities and science, giving people confidence and encouraging overwhelming compliance. The result was one of the least restrictive lockdowns of any country in the world, and one of the lowest infection rates.

But the situation has changed. Not only do we have a much better understanding of the disease, but treatments have improved tremendously, and the proportion of adults who have received two vaccine doses is nearing 50% and rising sharply to around 1 million doses a day. Furthermore, the new delta variant is already well established here, and there is no chance of keeping it out. But instead of making sound decisions based on science, the rules now seem to be based more on political expediency.

Before the Olympics, for example, Fugaku estimated that the infection risk at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium would be low, even full of spectators. But, famously, the stands were kept empty, even as baseball stadiums and amusement parks continued to welcome people.

When infections among children increased, regional governments promptly extended summer vacation for schools, but not for kindergartens.

Other factors, like whether a person has been vaccinated or has recovered from COVID, are also not being factored into decisions surrounding whether a person should be allowed to enter Japan, or whether a Japanese resident or citizen returning from overseas should have to spend two weeks in quarantine. Yet travel within Japan is completely unrestricted.

With more and more studies showing that travel bans do little to slow the spread of a virus, and do almost nothing once a new variant has been established, as the delta variant is, it has become increasingly apparent that rules like Japan's are -- as The Economist stated in an article "Most covid-19 travel restrictions should be scrapped" published on Aug. 14 -- "ineffective, illiberal and often useless."

Worse, the rules have a real negative impact, both on the economy and the well-being of people connected to Japan. The initial ban on long-term residents returning home has left a bad taste in many foreigners' mouths, and the ban on tourism and business travel is sapping morale.

The arrival lobby at Narita International Airport, pictured on July 15: the ban on tourism and business travel is sapping morale.   © AP

The ban is also hindering Japan from getting on with dealing with urgent national issues, such as its aging society, its acute labor shortage, the goal to increase Tokyo's heft as an Asian financial hub by taking in companies that are considering leaving Hong Kong.

Through my involvement with Entrepreneurs' Organization whose members employ some 700,000 people in Asia, I have talked to many entrepreneurs with a Japan focus, and the overwhelming view is that many investors who were previously looking at Japan have either put their plans on hold or pulled them altogether.

This stance also appears to have the support of the Japan Business Federation, which Monday called for normalizing the country's economic activity now that vaccinations have made steady progress.

Travel corridors with countries that accept Japan's vaccine passports need to go both ways, and rules need to be communicated clearly and in plain English so that social media forums such as the Return to Japan Support Group, which has over 25,000 members, can help spread the word to the world outside.

Finally, if the borders need to be closed down again, then new restrictions must be targeted toward specific goals, and not just imposed indefinitely.

With the negative impact on Japan's economy and its reputation growing daily, it is time for Japan to gradually start easing travel restrictions and allow business travel and tourism to resume.

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