TOKYO – With the emergence of a new omega variant of the corona virus last weekend, countries around the world rushed to close their borders to travelers from South Africa, even in the absence of scientific information on whether such measures would be necessary or effective. In stopping the spread of the virus.
Japan, which announced Monday that it will close the world’s third-largest economy to travelers from all over the world, is far ahead of other countries.
This is a trick well known to Japan. The country has banned tourists since the onset of the epidemic, although other parts of the world have begun to travel again. It was temporarily open to business travelers and students this month, despite recording the highest vaccination rates in the world’s richest democracies and seeing its corona virus cases drop by 99 percent since August.
Now, with the doors closed again, Japan is offering a sober case study of the human and economic cost of those closed borders. In the months since Japan’s isolation, thousands of life plans have been suspended, leaving couples, students, academic researchers and workers in a quandary.
Aino Hiros has not been able to see her fianc in person for the past 19 months, and just two weeks after she moved from Japan to her native Indonesia, her parents blessed their wedding plans.
With Japan closed to most outsiders, Ms. Hiros and his fiance Terry Nanda Prayoga have not seen a clear path to reunion. Indonesia began to allow some visitors, but the logistics challenges were steep. So this couple has made several daily video calls. When things are done talking, they play billiards on Facebook Messenger or watch Japanese shows together online.
“We do not want to be in pain at the thought of not being able to reunite in the future,” she said. Heroes, 21, mr. Terry to come to Japan. “So we will think positively and continue to have confidence.”
As the United States, Britain and most parts of Europe reopened to vaccinated travelers in the summer and fall, Japan and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region opened their borders to only one crack, even after reaching the highest vaccination rates in the world. Now, with the emergence of the Omigron variant, Japan is rapidly banging on again with Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia and South Korea.
China, which has banned international tourists since the outbreak, has so far issued visas for work or diplomatic purposes, although limited airline options and lengthy isolation have prevented travelers. Taiwan has banned the entry of almost all residents since the outbreak began. Australia, which recently began allowing citizens and visa holders to travel abroad, said on Monday it would delay easing its border restrictions. Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand have banned travel from South Africa, where the variation was first announced.
While the real threat of the new variant is not yet clear, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters on Monday that he had decided to withdraw the relaxation for business travelers and international students “to avoid a worse situation.”
The government’s decision to close again reflects its willingness to defend its success in fighting the virus and prevent the pressure on the health care system it experienced during the summer when the delta variant erupted.
Japan only records about 150 corona virus cases a day, and before the Omigron variant appeared, business leaders called for a more aggressive reopening.
“At the beginning of the epidemic, Japan did what most countries around the world did – we thought we needed proper border controls,” Yoshihisa Masaki, director of communications at Kaitenren, Japan’s largest business campaign group, said in an interview earlier this month.
But he said the continued tightening of border controls would hamper economic progress as cases were declining. “It’s like Japan was lagging behind in the Edo era,” he said. Masaki says it refers to the isolated era of Japan in the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries.
Japan is already lagging behind countries in Southeast Asia, where economies depend on tourism revenues and governments are at the forefront of the drive to reopen. Thailand recently reopened to tourists from 63 countries, and Cambodia began to welcome vaccinated visitors with minimal restrictions. Other countries, such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, allowed tourists from certain countries to visit restricted areas.
Wealthy Asian countries such as Japan resisted pressure to reopen. Aside from its decision to host the Summer Olympics, Japan was on high alert throughout the epidemic. This is the beginning of closing its borders and closing schools. It carried out its vaccine campaign only after conducting its own clinical trials. Food and drinking time was banned in many provinces until September.
Michael Mrosek, a lawyer in Tokyo and chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce, said foreign companies could not bring in executives or other staff to replace those moving to the homeland or another international position.
In a statement on Monday, the council said business travelers or new employees should be allowed to enter if they follow strict screening and isolation measures.
“Japan’s success in the vaccine front must be hoped for,” the council said. “Japan and its people are now determined to reap economic rewards.”
Business leaders said science should guide future decisions. Christopher Laughlour, former US ambassador to Malaysia and special adviser to the US Chamber of Commerce in Japan, said: “Government policies have so far significantly curbed the impact of the epidemic on those of us who live and work in Japan.
But to see if it is fair to close the border completely, “I think we need to look at science in the coming days,” he said.
Students are also pushed into a state of uncertainty. 140,000 or more are admitted to universities or language schools in Japan and they wait several months to enter the country to begin their studies.
Carla Ditmer, 19, wanted to learn Japanese in the summer from Honstead, south of Hamburg, Germany. Instead, she wakes up at 1am every day to attend an online language class in Tokyo.
“I feel curious, frankly, sometimes pessimistic because I do not know when I will be able to enter Japan and continue my studies,” Ms Ditmer said. “I can understand the need for caution, but I hope Japan will resolve the matter through immigration precautions such as testing and isolation rather than its wall-up policy.”
Boundary closures have economically offset many areas and industries that depend on foreign tourism.
When Japan announced earlier this month that it would reopen to business travelers and international students, Tatsumasa Sakai, 70, the fifth-generation owner of a shop selling ukio-e or woodworking prints in Tokyo’s popular tourist destination, Asakusa, believed. This step is the first step in reopening.
“As the number of cases is declining, I thought we could bring in more tourists and revive Asakuza,” he said. “At the moment, I think the government is taking precautionary measures, but it’s still disappointing.”
Mr. Terry and Mrs. Hiros also face a long wait. The two of them met Ms. Hiros while they were working at an auto parts manufacturing company. Terry returned to Indonesia in April 2020 after his Japanese work visa expired. Three months before his departure, he proposed to Ms. Hiros during a trip to the Disneyland Amusement Park near Tokyo.
Ms. Hiros had booked a flight to Jakarta that May so the couple could get married, but by then the borders in Indonesia were closed.
“Our marriage plan broke down,” said the 26-year-old. Terry said on the phone from Jakarta. “It is not clear how long the epidemic will last.”
Just last week, Mr. Terry had secured his passport and hoped to leave for Japan in February or March.
Upon hearing about Japan’s renewed border closure, he said he was not surprised. “I was optimistic,” he said. “But suddenly the border is closing again.”
“I don’t know what else to do,” he added. “This epidemic seems to be endless.”
Hisako Uno and Makiko Inov reported in Tokyo; Dera Menra Sijapat In Jakarta, Indonesia; Richard c. Paddock In Bangkok; John Eun In Seoul; Raymond Zhang In Taiwan, Taipei; And Yan Chuang In Sydney, Australia.