Japan is to ease its strict border controls from next month, media reports said on Thursday, after criticism from students, workers and family members who have been in effect “locked out” of the country for up to two years.
The restrictions, which limit arrivals to Japanese citizens and returning foreign residents, have affected 150,000 students, triggering accusations from politicians and business leaders that the ban is damaging the country’s economy and international image.
Japan briefly relaxed the rules last year but tightened them again in November in an attempt to prevent the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The opening up will be incremental, however, and will not apply to tourists. The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, is expected to announce later on Thursday an increase in daily arrivals from 3,500 to 5,000, as well as a reduction in quarantine from a week to three days for people with a negative test result and proof they have had a booster shot.
“We are considering how to ease the border control measures by taking into account scientific evidence that has become available regarding the Omicron strain and the changing infection situations at home and abroad,” the chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, said, according to the Kyodo news agency.
Kishida had appeared reluctant to relax the measures, which are popular with the public, ahead of upper house elections in July.
But he has come under pressure from business leaders who said the restrictions amounted to a “seclusion policy” that would worsen Japan’s chronic labour shortage. Member of Kishida’s own party said the ban was pointless given that Omicron had become the dominant strain in Japan.
“If you look at the overall situation now, they’re meaningless; you can get the virus anywhere. But as a result of having [the restrictions], [Kishida] got a lot of public support,” said political analyst Atsuo Ito.
Failure to lift at least some restrictions would risk seeing Japan being “left behind by the rest of the world”, he added.
Government health experts said a sixth wave of the virus fuelled by Omicron had peaked earlier this month after data showed week-on-week falls in new infections in most age groups.
While new cases are trending down, Japan’s most recent wave of infections has taken a toll on more vulnerable people, with a record 236 deaths reported on Tuesday.
Only about 10% of the population has received a booster jab, compared with more than 50% in South Korea and Singapore, prompting Kishida to announce a daily target of 1m third shots a day.