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International relations

Japan needs mutual recognition for 'vaccine passports': AmCham

Country's largest foreign business lobby calls for reciprocal treatment

Japanese airline ANA's trial digital health passport: Business groups have called on Japan to apply entry and quarantine measures equally to foreigners and Japanese. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- Japan needs to ensure mutual recognition of its planned COVID-19 vaccine certificate, which would allow foreigners who have received their shots abroad to enter the country without restrictions, an executive from the country's largest foreign business lobby has told Nikkei Asia.

Christopher LaFleur, special adviser and former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, has asked the Japanese government to ensure that free entry is guaranteed for vaccinated foreign travelers from countries that lift entry restrictions for such travelers from Japan.

Japan is set to issue "vaccine passports" in late July to inoculated citizens, which they can show to overseas border control authorities, to revive international travel. However, details on reciprocal moves for incoming travelers are still under discussion.

"This recognition ought to be reciprocal," LaFleur said in a recent interview. If "the U.S. is to recognize the Japanese documents then Japan should be willing to recognize the U.S. documents. That's a challenge for governments... And hopefully we will get that sort of mutual recognition system established quickly," added LaFleur, who served previously as U.S. ambassador to Malaysia and is well versed in Asian diplomacy.

The European Union's decision to introduce a Digital COVID Certificate across all 27 member nations and some non-EU states this month is "very encouraging. ... I hope that Japan will adopt, hopefully soon, something along the same lines," said LaFleur, while stressing that each country has to be responsible for its own public health.

"Otherwise, we will be in the somewhat uncomfortable position of the Japanese government issuing vaccination records to its citizens so they can travel overseas, and yet foreigners can't enter Japan [without restrictions]," he said.

“This [vaccine] recognition ought to be reciprocal ... if the U.S. recognize[s] the Japanese documents ... Japan should be willing to recognize the U.S. documents," says Christopher LaFleur. (Photo courtesy of ACCJ)

The ACCJ, the largest international business group in Japan, issued a joint statement in late May together with the European Business Council, the Australian and New Zealand, as well as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan, calling on the government to adopt vaccine certificates in order to restart international travel.

They urged Tokyo to "ease restrictions on travel to Japan and quarantines" for those who have received full vaccinations, have antigens or have had two consecutive negative PCR tests and hold such a credential.

The Japanese vaccine documents, which will be first issued in paper form, will include information such as the date of vaccination and the manufacturer. Tokyo plans to offer digital vaccination documents later through an app, but "if we are going to expand international travel, having a digital track would make a great deal of sense," LaFleur said. Details on a specific app are still not publicly available.

"We think it would be wise for governments to introduce internationally recognized systems to document the health status of travelers," he said, referring to Singapore's decision to support the framework proposed by the International Air Transport Association. Some authorities are considering using the one established by the Commons Project Foundation. "So we'd like to see Japan also move in that direction."

LaFleur expressed hope that the Japanese economy will be on the mend by the end of the year, largely thanks to its vaccination program. The country started a massive campaign in June at workplaces nationwide, on top of those run by municipalities, but a growing number of Japanese cities are canceling vaccination appointments due to a shortage of shots.

As of Thursday, 23.9% of Japanese had received at least one dose of vaccine, up from just 2.4% two months earlier, according to Our World in Data.

Reciprocity is a norm in diplomacy, but foreign business organizations in Japan are cautiously watching to see whether that principle will apply to vaccination records. Early on in the coronavirus outbreak, Japan barred even permanent and long-term foreign residents from entering the country, despite allowing its nationals to reenter, provided they had been tested and underwent quarantine. The differential treatment exasperated many in Japan's international community, and it was considered "a discriminatory policy," said LaFleur.

Michael Mroczek, president of the European Business Council in Japan, said at a news conference in June last year that there was a "lack of reciprocity" between Japan and the EU regarding immigration policy, as the EU allowed both EU and non-EU citizens, including Japanese, who are long-term residents of the bloc to return.

Regarding the vaccine certificate, LaFleur said he appreciated that those documents will be issued to everyone, both Japanese citizens and foreign residents, who get vaccinated in Japan. However, it is "not yet clear," he said, how the government will treat the documents of foreign residents who have received a full course of a vaccination overseas.

The ACCJ's joint statement in May also called on the government to apply entry and quarantine measures equally to foreign residents and Japanese nationals.

Japan's entry ban on foreign residents was lifted last August, and new entries got a short-lived boost from country's business and residence tracks. However, expedited admission for nonresidents in these categories was halted in January after a new wave of infections hit Japan and due to the global spread of variants. At present, exceptions are made only on a humanitarian basis, or for essential workers. But the approval process is opaque.

"As the public health situation is improving in many countries overseas, it's important that Japan begin to expand the numbers of people [who] can be admitted under such programs," LaFleur said, adding that the restrictions are an increasingly serious problem for foreign companies, as the current policy makes it "virtually impossible" for them to make personnel transfers during the peak summer season.

"Not making it possible for companies to replace key employees will definitely be a discouraging factor for businesses that are considering investing in Japan," he added.

In May, Tokyo announced a new rule banning arrivals of non-Japanese nationals traveling from India, Nepal and Pakistan, including long-term residents of Japan, to contain the highly infectious delta variant. "Japan went backwards in terms of its approach to managing restrictions on travel," LaFleur said.

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