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Japan extends virus border controls until end of February

Visitors offer prayers on the first business day of the year at the Kanda Myojin shrine in Tokyo on Jan. 4.  (Toru Hanai/Bloomberg)
By Isabel Reynolds Bloomberg

Japan will extend its tight border restrictions until the end of February over the omicron variant, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, a move one of the country’s most prominent businessmen criticized as “illogical.”

Spooked by the rapid spread of omicron, the government in November reintroduced a ban on new entry by nonresident foreigners. Tuesday’s extension looks set to keep the barriers up for both business people and foreign students.

“There is a clear difference between the omicron infection situations inside the country and overseas,” Kishida told reporters in Tokyo, saying that implementing the harshest measures among the Group of Seven countries had minimized the entry of the variant. “While taking some steps for humanitarian and national interest reasons, we will maintain the current border measures until the end of February.”

The border controls could help Japan buy some time as it tries to speed up its booster rollout that is far slower than many of its peers. After keeping cases under control for months, infection numbers have climbed more than 10-fold since the start of the year, increasing concerns that a bigger wave is under way.

Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Rakuten Group Inc. who has been an outspoken critic of some government policies, panned the border controls in a tweet following the announcement.

“What’s the point of banning new entry by foreigners?” he said. “The decision is so illogical. Does Japan want to be a closed country?”

Japan is still posting some of the lowest infection numbers among developed countries. While it tallied 8,078 new cases Sunday, the U.S. recorded about 678,000 on the same day.

Kishida, who faces an upper house election in six months, has acted swiftly to deal with new developments in the pandemic. His two predecessors, Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga, saw their public support slide, with polls showing voters were unhappy with their handling of the virus.

A poll published by JNN on Monday showed support for Kishida had risen by 2.7 percentage points to 66.7% compared with a month earlier.

Record outbreaks in some areas around U.S. military bases prompted Japan to call for tighter controls, and the two governments have announced an agreement on confining troops to their bases for two weeks. Okinawa and two other areas close to a U.S. Marine base have been placed under virus restrictions.

Kishida said Self-Defense Forces nurses would be dispatched to affected areas if required, and the two countries would continue to discuss the public health aspects of the U.S. troop presence.

Japan is seeking to speed up booster vaccinations, Kishida also told reporters Tuesday. He said in a news conference last week the country would work to bring forward third doses for health workers and the elderly.

The government now plans to hasten boosters for less vulnerable groups from March by using 18 million additional doses of the Moderna vaccine and will restart the large-scale vaccination centers run by the Self-Defense Forces that were used last year, Kishida said.

A report by Jiji News said the government would consider easing restrictions on entry by foreign students and foreign families of Japanese residents. Thousands of people overseas who had been planning to study in Japan have been left in limbo with the country’s borders effectively closed to them for much of the pandemic. A petition for relaxation of the ban was presented to the Foreign Ministry last week.

In a concession made for humanitarian reasons, foreign residents of Japan who had been banned from returning after visiting any of 11 southern African nations will now be allowed to re-enter, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said.

Bloomberg’s Jon Herskovitz and Emi Nobuhiro contributed to this report.