TOKYO – With the emergence of the new variant of the Omicron coronavirus late last week, countries around the world have rushed to close their borders to travelers from southern Africa, even in the absence of scientific information on whether such measures are necessary or effective. in stopping the spread of the virus.
Japan has gone further than most other countries by announcing on Monday that the world’s third largest economy will be closed to travelers from everywhere.
For Japan, this is a familiar tactic. The country has banned tourists since the start of the pandemic, even as much of the rest of the world has begun to travel again. And just this month, it was tentatively reopened to business travelers and students, despite having the highest vaccination rate among the world’s major wealthy democracies and after a 99 percent drop in coronavirus cases since August.
Now that the doors are slamming again, Japan provides a sobering example of the human and economic costs of these closed borders. Over the months of Japan’s isolation, thousands of life plans have been put on hold, leaving couples, students, academic researchers and workers in limbo.
Ayano Hirose has been unable to see her fiancé in person for the past 19 months as he left Japan for his native Indonesia, just two weeks after her parents blessed their marriage plans.
Because Japan remained closed to most outsiders, Ms. Hirose and her fiancé Deri Nanda Prayoga did not see a clear path to reunification. Indonesia began to admit some visitors, but serious logistics problems arose. Thus, the couple was content with a few daily video calls. When they have nothing to talk about, they play billiards on Facebook Messenger or watch Japanese entertainment shows on the Internet together.
“We don’t want to suffer the pain of not being able to reunite in the near future,” said 21-year-old Ms. Hirose, who wrote letters to the Foreign and Justice Ministries asking for an exemption to allow Mr. Hirose. Dera come to Japan. “So we will think positively and continue to hope.”
While the United States, Britain and much of Europe reopened in summer and fall to vaccinated travelers, Japan and other Asia-Pacific countries only opened their borders slightly, even after reaching one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Now, with the introduction of the Omicron variant, Japan, along with Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia, and South Korea, are rapidly surrendering again.
China, which has banned foreign tourists since the start of the pandemic, still issues visas for work or diplomatic purposes, although travel restrictions and lengthy quarantines have deterred travelers. Taiwan has banned entry to nearly all non-residents since the start of the pandemic. Australia, which has only recently begun allowing citizens and visa holders to travel abroad, said Monday it would delay easing its border restrictions. Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand have banned travelers from leaving southern Africa, where the option was first reported.
While the true threat of the new option is not yet clear, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters on Monday that he decided to end the benefits for business travelers and international students to “avoid a worst-case scenario.”
The government’s decision to shut down again reflects its desire to maintain its gains in the fight against the virus and prevent the pressure on the healthcare system that the Delta variant outbreak experienced in the summer.
There are only about 150 coronavirus cases a day in Japan, and before the Omicron option came along, business executives were calling for a more aggressive reopening.
“At the start of the pandemic, Japan did what most countries in the world did – we thought we needed proper border controls,” Yoshihisa Masaki, director of public relations for Keidanren, Japan’s largest business lobbying group, said in an interview earlier this month.
But as the number of cases dwindles, he said, persisting tough border restrictions threaten to stall economic progress. “It will be as if Japan was left behind during the Edo period,” said Mr. Masaki, referring to Japan’s isolationist era between the 17th and mid-19th centuries.
Japan was already lagging behind Southeast Asian economies dependent on tourism revenues, and governments tiptoed forward to reopen. Thailand has recently reopened to tourists from 63 countries, and Cambodia has just begun accepting vaccinated visitors with minimal restrictions. Other countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia allowed tourists from certain countries to enter restricted areas.
Wealthier Asian countries such as Japan have resisted pressure to reopen. With the exception of its decision to host the Summer Olympics, Japan has been cautious throughout the pandemic. It was too early to close borders and schools. The company launched a vaccination campaign only after conducting its own clinical trials. Until September, food and drink times remained limited in many prefectures.
Foreign companies cannot bring in executives or other employees to replace those who move home or to another international position, said Michael Mrokzek, a Tokyo-based lawyer who is president of the European Business Council.
In a statement Monday, the council said business travelers or new employees should be allowed entry, provided they comply with strict testing and quarantine measures.
“We have to believe in Japan’s success in vaccination,” the council said. “Both Japan and its people are now firmly in a position to reap economic benefits.”
Business leaders said they want science to guide future decisions. “For those of us who live and work in Japan, we understand that government policies have so far significantly limited the impact of the pandemic here,” said Christopher Lafler, former US ambassador to Malaysia and special adviser to the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
But, he said, “I think we really need to turn to science in the coming days” to see if a complete border closure is warranted.
The students also found themselves in a quandary. An estimated 140,000 or more people were admitted to universities or language schools in Japan and waited months to enter the country to begin their studies.
Karla Dittmer, 19, hoped to move from Hanstedt, a city south of Hamburg, Germany, to Japan in the summer to study Japanese. Instead, she woke up every morning at 1pm to enroll in online courses in Tokyo.
“I really feel anxious and frankly sometimes desperate because I have no idea when I can come to Japan or if I can continue my studies,” said Ms. Dittmer. “I understand the need for caution, but I hope that Japan will address this issue with immigration precautions such as tests and quarantine rather than its fencing policy.”
The closure of the borders has led to an economic downturn in many regions and industries that depend on foreign tourism.
When Japan announced its reopening to business travelers and international students earlier this month, 70-year-old Tatsumasa Sakai, a fifth-generation owner of an ukiyo-e, or woodcut, shop in Asakusa, a popular tourist destination in Tokyo, hoped that this step was the first step towards further discovery.
“As the number of cases declined, I thought we might have more tourists and Asakusa might slowly come back to life,” he said. “I think this time the government is just taking precautions, but it’s still very disappointing.”
Mr. Deri and Miss Hirose also have a long wait. Mr Deri, who met Ms Hirose when they both worked for an auto parts manufacturer, returned to Indonesia in April 2020 after the expiration of his Japanese work visa. Three months before leaving, he proposed to Miss Hirose during a walk at DisneySea near Tokyo.
Ms Hirose had booked a flight to Jakarta for that May so the couple could get married, but by then the borders with Indonesia were closed.
“Our marriage plan collapsed,” Deri, 26, said by telephone from Jakarta. “It is not clear how long the pandemic will last.”
Just last week, Mr. Deri received his passport and hoped to fly to Japan in February or March.
When he heard about the new closure of the border with Japan, he said he was not surprised. “I was full of hope,” he said. “But suddenly the border closes again.”
“I don’t know what else to do,” he added. “This pandemic seems endless.”
The reportage was prepared by Hisako Ueno and Makiko Inoue from Tokyo; Dera Menra Sijabat in Jakarta, Indonesia; Richard S. Paddock in Bangkok; John Yoon in Seoul; Raymond Zhong in Taipei, Taiwan; and Yang Zhuang in Sydney, Australia.