Japan Immigration Eyes Prescreening Visa-Free Travelers; New System Would Resemble U.S. ESTA Program

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Immigration Services Agency in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo

The government has decided to prescreen certain foreign travelers before they set out for Japan by having them declare their activities and places of stay in advance, it has been learned.

The move aims to prevent foreigners from entering Japan for purposes such as terrorism or illegal work by preventing those seen as likely to cause problems from boarding Japan-bound planes, according to sources.

The United States requires foreign travelers to apply in advance through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), for purposes such as preventing terrorism. With ESTA as a model, the Japanese government plans to implement its own version of the system by 2030, the year the government is targeting for increasing the number of visitors to Japan to 60 million.

Foreign travelers subject to the envisaged system would be those from countries and regions whose people are exempted from having to obtain short-stay visas for sightseeing, business trips and visits to relatives. As of April, this exemption applied to 71 countries and regions.

Foreign travelers from those countries and regions will be required to report online to the Immigration Services Agency several days to several weeks prior to their planned Japan-bound flight such information as their name, purpose of entry and activities, and place of stay. Examiners at the agency will screen them by, for example, cross-checking them against people with criminal records or those on a blacklist. If there are no indications that they might work illegally in Japan or engage in other illegal acts, they will be allowed to travel to Japan. But if suspicion of illegal employment arises, they will not be allowed to board an airplane.

Currently, airlines that operate international flights provide the government with passenger information within 30 minutes after takeoff and the information is checked against relevant lists. Foreign nationals who do not pass the immigration screening are not allowed to officially enter Japan after landing at an airport here. In some cases, they have fled after being ordered to leave the country upon arrival. The planned prescreening before entry into Japan is expected to prevent such problems and reduce the burden of screening.

The government plans to tighten the pre-arrival screening is because there have been increasing cases of foreign nationals remaining in Japan illegally.

While expanding the number of countries eligible for visa exemption under its tourism-oriented country initiative, the government considers it necessary to also tighten border control measures, as illegal stays could lead to a deterioration of public security.

Prior to the introduction of the Japanese version of ESTA, another system is planned to be established by the end of fiscal 2024 in which passenger information will be sent to the agency as soon as foreign nationals complete boarding procedures. The information will be checked against relevant lists prior to departure. If a passenger is found to have problems, the agency would contact the airline and have them block the passenger from boarding an airplane.