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Coronavirus

Japan vaccine passport struggles to open doors without reciprocity

Foreign governments balk as Tokyo keeps entry restrictions in place

A health care worker prepares a coronavirus vaccine at a clinic in Osaka. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

TOKYO -- Japan's new vaccine passports exempting Japanese travelers from entry restrictions have been slow to gain wide acceptance as the government hesitates to reciprocate the privilege to other countries.

Just 12 foreign countries and territories accept the vaccine passports, frustrating a business community here that had expected easier travel.

Japan opened up applications July 26, with Italy and four other countries initially agreeing to honor the passports. Holders need not self-quarantine upon arrival or submit PCR test results.

Germany, Hong Kong and others have since joined the list, and talks with dozens more countries are in progress. But some countries say it is unfair for Japan not to offer the same exemptions it is requesting for Japanese holders.

Japan's vaccine passports thus have only a limited reach. The U.S. requires travelers from Japan to show a negative preflight COVID-19 viral test or proof of recovery from infection, for example. The U.K. and China have quarantine requirements.

Still, the Japanese side is reluctant to ease its own entry restrictions. The spread of the delta variant has led to Tokyo, Osaka and nine other prefectures coming under states of emergency or quasi-emergencies.

Even Japanese returnees holding vaccine passports are told to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. And the business community is not happy.

"I don't use it on business trips, because it's valid in only a limited number of countries," an employee at a major trading house said.

"If I have to quarantine for 14 days after returning from a business trip, I can't get any work done," a staffer at an electronics maker said.

A sample of the certificate of coronavirus vaccination issued by Japanese local governments. (Photo by Kotaro Sugimoto)

The Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren, backs the use of vaccine passports, with a senior official saying, "I'd like them to consider easing quarantine measures for returnees."

Not all applicants for Japan's vaccine passports have clear plans to travel abroad yet. Tokyo's Minato Ward had received more than 1,800 applications as of Monday, with passports issued for around 70% of them.

But "it's my impression that less than 10% of the people will soon travel to countries where they can be used," an official there said.

In Osaka, 1,646 passports had been issued for 1,689 applications by Monday.

"It seems that many applicants have plans to travel to places like China, Taiwan and the U.S.," a city official said. "Maybe they are getting them in case these places are added to the valid regions."

The European Union has actively granted digital COVID certificates since July 1. The documents are accepted in the 27 member countries, as well as Switzerland and Norway. The holder can scan a QR code when crossing the border to receive a waiver from self-quarantining or testing.

The EU has designated more than 20 countries, including Japan, as "epidemiologically safe." Many EU members exempt safe-list arrivals from quarantine if they show proof of a negative COVID test, even if they have not completed their vaccinations.

France is reopening its borders to "green list" nations and territories, such as Japan, the U.S. and Australia. Unvaccinated travelers from these places would need to show proof of a negative coronavirus test.

The U.K. color codes inbound travelers' countries as "red," "amber" and "green." For travelers from Japan and other amber countries, proof of a negative COVID test is required, along with two other tests after arrival. They must self-quarantine for 10 days as well. On Monday, U.K. requirements to self-quarantine and to take the second post-entry COVID test were scrapped for fully vaccinated travelers from the U.S. and most of the EU -- two amber regions.

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