Kishida gives in to calls to ease border restrictions

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announces the plan to ease border restrictions at the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday.

Persistent calls from business circles, international students and others to reopen the nation’s borders likely influenced the government’s plan to ease restrictions, which Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced Thursday.

In March, the number of people allowed to enter Japan per day will be raised from about 3,500 to 5,000, but this still falls far short of the number of daily arrivals before the pandemic, prompting some members of the business community to call for further relaxation of restrictions.

“We will maintain the strictest standards among the Group of Seven major nations, but we’ll gradually ease the framework of our border controls,” Kishida said at a press conference on Thursday.

The prime minister also stressed that the increase in the number of nonresident foreigners entering the country would be carried out cautiously while keeping a close eye on the infection situation in Japan and abroad.

The decision marks something of a turnaround for Kishida. Senior officials from the Cabinet Secretariat and others who showed him drafts of possible steps to relax restrictions had received a simple response from the prime minister: “I’ll think about it.”

Kishida agonized over the content of Thursday’s announcement right up until the last minute.

When Kishida suspended the entry of nonresident foreign nationals at the end of November 2021, he said he was “ready to accept all criticism.”

The suspension was initially described as an “emergency measure,” but the policy was extended several times. In December, the government said it would remain in place “for the time being,” and in January the stated cutoff was “the end of February.”

Public opinion polls conducted by various media outlets showed widespread support for halting the entry of new arrivals into Japan. “The prime minister was buoyed by the success, and he couldn’t bring himself to drop the ban,” the leader of a Liberal Democratic Party faction said.

‘Loss to the nation’

The decrease in new coronavirus cases in Japan and mounting criticism of the closed border policy from various sectors were factors in Kishida’s pivot to ease border restrictions, albeit on a limited basis.

Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) Chairman Masakazu Tokura has bemoaned the nation’s strict border controls, likening the situation to a “state of isolation.”

The hurdles involved in bringing in foreign engineers and experts from abroad have had a negative impact on businesses. In some cases, foreign spouses of Japanese nationals were not permitted to enter Japan, which sparked criticism from overseas that this was becoming a “human rights issue.”

About 1,900 foreign students were allowed to enter Japan in January and February, but 150,000 more are still waiting for the welcome mat to be rolled out. As of Jan. 4, a total of 400,000 foreign nationals whose visas have already been approved by authorities were waiting to enter Japan. The LDP’s ruling coalition partner also has cranked up its criticism of the prolonged border restrictions

“A lack of foreign nationals who are knowledgeable about Japan will be a loss to this nation in the future,” Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said.

Testing capacity

Only nonresident foreigners with “exceptional circumstances” are currently permitted to enter Japan. The eased restrictions from March will not apply to tourists.

The economic impact of increased consumption and other expenditures when restrictions are eased could be worth about ¥1.6 trillion annually, according to Takahide Kiuchi, an executive economist at Nomura Research Institute.

However, the quota of “about 5,000 people per day” could cause further disruption because it is likely to be on a first-come, first-served basis.

An average of about 140,000 people entered Japan each day in January 2020, before the start of pandemic-related border restrictions. Some business leaders have been criticizing the government for leaving the entry restrictions in place for so long.

“Ultimately, dropping [the restrictions] would be best,” Rakuten Group Chairman and President Hiroshi Mikitani said. “Otherwise the economic recovery could be delayed and Japan will become a forgotten presence.”

A senior quarantine station official said airports would be “stretched to the limit” to conduct coronavirus tests on 5,000 people per day. The government plans to bolster testing capacity in preparation for the further easing of restrictions.