Update: Government Walks Back Booking Ban
Less than 24 hours after announcing their ban on new flight bookings to Japan through December, the Japanese government has begun to walk back the surprising policy. The sudden announcement brought on a wave of concern from Japanese citizens abroad; the push-back against the ban may have been great enough to cause the Kishida cabinet to reverse the decision.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Kishida was already trying to allay concerns, saying “I have instructed the transport ministry to give thorough considerations for Japanese nationals wishing to return.” The announcement of the reverse-face came later, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno saying that “we will drop the request for a blanket halt. The transport ministry has notified airlines to give sufficient considerations for Japanese nationals wishing to return.” Japan’s two largest airlines, ANA and JAL, followed suit by announcing they would be offering bookings again on a limited basis. Who exactly tickets will be made available to, and to what degree, remains to be seen.
Update made on Dec. 2nd, 2021.
A Stunning Announcement
In a sudden move, the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism has announced today that it is requesting airlines to block the booking of any new tickets for international flights landing in Japan for the next month. This will last from today, December 1st, until January 1st, 2022. The announcement in question comes as the world reels from news of a new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, which some scientists fear may be especially virulent. (The extent of the danger posed by Omicron is not yet well understood.) All Nippon Airlines (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL) have already given their assent. Those airlines which are not based in Japan are potentially a different story.
What sets this announcement apart from the various regulations which have essentially closed the Japanese border in the past year and a half is the effect it will have on Japanese citizens. The first half-year of the pandemic saw the barring of Japanese foreign residents from returning from stays abroad to homes in Japan; however, even during this strictest of initial entry regulations, Japanese passport holders could still return to their home country. While the next month will still see those who are already ticket holders to Japan able to embark, this time is unique – citizens, it seems, will not be able to buy tickets home. In the meantime, the Japanese government has asked citizens abroad to understand that “this is an emergency step to prevent further spread.” According to various Japanese airlines, there had been an increase in bookings to Japan by citizens abroad for the holiday/new years season.
Earlier this year, the Japanese government similarly asked airlines to halt bookings to slow down arrivals for the Olympics. However, in the previous case, the request only affected certain major airports on specific days; the order was not nearly so wide-reaching.
Hopes, Newly Dashed
This news comes only mere days after the announcement of the curtailment of recently relaxed border policies. For the bulk of the pandemic, students, workers, trainees, family, and partners who had not yet received full visas to enter Japan have been stranded outside of the country. Merely a month ago, Japan finally announced that the processing of new visas for those waiting would at last begin; a shorter quarantine period of only three days for sponsored businesspeople was part of this announcement. However, days ago, the Japanese government backtracked, having seemingly processed only a few new visas. Incoming citizens, residents, and visa holders, including those who are fully vaccinated, will have to comply with a two-week quarantine. Those whose visas were not processed in the all-too-brief window of relaxation are currently out of luck.
Variant Fears and Politicking
In the past day, Japan has confirmed two cases of the Omicron virus within its borders. The first case was a Namibian diplomat in his 30s, who at first remained asymptomatic. (He later developed a fever, although the severity is unknown.) In response to this, the country had already issued a complete stop of non-citizens entering Japan from ten countries in southern Africa. (Specifically: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Lesotho, and Angola.) The second case appears to have come from a traveler inbound from Peru.
Japanese citizens arriving from said countries will be able to avail themselves of a two-week quarantine in government facilities. (Worthy of note is that despite the first cases of Omicron being confirmed in southern Africa, the strain is already being found worldwide – although many countries’ bans still focus on southern Africa.) Reuters quotes Waseda University political science professor Hino Airo as saying that these strong steps are likely an attempt by newly elected Prime Minister Kishida to portray himself as strong and decisive. “The governments before him didn’t restrict travel soon enough, and he’s taking that into account. It’s a truism of politics that how you deal with crisis can make or break a government.” As for Kishida himself, he claims he’s willing to accept full responsibility for the effects of the strengthened border regime.
Such strict (and sudden) measures may indeed win Kishida political points. In the case that the Omicron variant is truly dangerous, his decision may be revealed to have been prescient. However, this is likely little consolation for those locked out abroad – Japanese passport holders or no. For both those newly unable to enter the country, or for those who continue to lack a means of embarkation or return, things have become even more difficult.