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Japan keeps foreign visitor ban to protect against COVID variants

Business exemption for Chinese and South Korean travelers remains suspended

Business travel exemptions with China, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam are likely to remain suspended.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan will maintain tight controls on the entry of foreign nationals following the extension of a state of emergency covering Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures to curb COVID-19, just weeks before preparations for the Olympics begin in earnest.

The emergency extension comes as authorities have been particularly vigilant in guarding against spikes in coronavirus cases as the countdown to hosting the Tokyo Games this summer begins. Once the declaration is lifted, currently scheduled for March 21, less than a week before the Olympic torch relay is set to begin, the government will welcome visitors first from countries that have not detected new coronavirus variants.

Business travel exemptions with China, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam for short trips are likely to remain suspended as virus variants have been found in these countries.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga vowed at a news conference on Friday that the country would "prevent a rebound [of COVID-19 cases] and make sure to be able to lift the declaration" as planned.

Tokyo will put the biggest priority on infection prevention measures, including at borders. "Much vigilance is required" for variants, Suga said.

The government halted new entries of foreigners in late December, prompted by an increase in infections. Visitors from 11 countries and regions under business travel exemptions were also banned on Jan. 14, as the state of emergency was declared the same month while variants were spreading abroad.

The business travel agreements have two frameworks: The "business track" is designed for short-term business travelers from China, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. The "residence track" is available for mid- to long-term visitors, such as expatriates and technical trainees, from 11 countries and territories including China and South Korea.

The business track covers countries with strong ties with Japan. Many industry players in elderly care and agriculture -- sectors suffering from serious labor shortages -- are calling for the resumption of new entries. Those entering Japan numbered 905 in December and 951 in January.

Entry restrictions are to be put in place even after the emergency is lifted on March 21, as some parts of the world face widespread COVID-19 variants that are more transmittable.

Japan currently does not allow new foreign entries except for foreign nationals with valid residence permits. The country is gearing up quarantine measures even to Japanese nationals, as it requires negative test result before departure, testing at the airport and a 14-day isolation at home.

The government however allows entries of those coming for the Tokyo Olympic Games for preparation, as an exception. The country expands special cases for entry permits, which are normally dedicated for those who meet separated families, receive medical treatment or attend international meetings.

A record 31.19 million foreigners visited Japan in 2019, according to the Immigration Services Agency, but the figure declined to 4.31 million in 2020, down 86%, due to border restrictions. 

Tokyo resumed welcoming foreign nationals last fall. The visitors rose from 35,578 in October to 66,603 in November and 69,742 in December.

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