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Home / Politics / Policy /  Japan lifts covid-19 ban on business travelers, foreign workers

TOKYO : As neighbor China sticks to zero-Covid policy, Japan aligns itself closer with U.S., Europe

Japan said it would allow short-term business travelers and foreign laborers to enter the country, responding to calls from companies that said they feared falling behind the West.

The decision followed a sharp fall in new infections in Japan, which is reporting only a few hundred new Covid-19 cases a day. More than 70% of the population is fully vaccinated.

The loosening up puts Japan closer to the rules in the U.S. and Europe, while heightening the contrast with China, which has stuck to a zero-Covid policy and severely restricted entry by foreigners.

Since last year, Tokyo has barred most businesspeople from making routine trips into the country and refused entry to tens of thousands of students and foreign workers who were otherwise eligible for residence in Japan. The government said those restrictions would be lifted Monday.

Some limits remain. Japan will still restrict the total number of international arrivals a day. Short-term visitors must have a host organization such as a company or school that takes responsibility for managing their stay and submits an activity plan to authorities. They must be vaccinated with an approved vaccine—those sold by Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca PLC—and isolate themselves for three days, after which they need a negative test.

Students and workers face a longer isolation period of two weeks. And tourists continue to be banned, extending the blow to hotels, tourist shops and other businesses.

The government had held off from changing its rules until national elections Oct. 31, which returned the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party to power with a solid parliamentary majority.

The country’s largest business lobby, known as Keidanren, has been advocating since September that vaccinated people be permitted to enter the country without a quarantine to reinvigorate the economy. Japanese people must currently undergo a quarantine of 10 to 14 days when they return from abroad.

Kengo Sakurada, the head of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives and chief executive of insurer Sompo Holdings Inc., said the various rules had made it hard to hold in-person meetings with his company’s overseas partners.

“I hope the quarantine period will become zero soon," he said.

The U.S. is set to lift travel restrictions for fully vaccinated international visitors, whether for business or leisure, also starting Monday. These visitors will still have to test negative before departure but don’t need to quarantine after entering the U.S.

Other nations such as Australia and Thailand have recently relaxed restrictions.

Before the pandemic, Japan was increasingly relying on foreign workers, including those on internship programs lasting several years.

A nonprofit called Katsumi-kai operates a dozen homes for the elderly in an area near Tokyo and had expected that three caregivers from Indonesia would start working as trainees in April. But the border closure has prevented them from coming until now, said Shigeki Ito, an executive at the group.

“I’m actually really grateful. It has finally come," Mr. Ito said.

He said existing staff has had to work overtime and the operator had to fill gaps with more costly temporary workers dispatched from job-placement firms.

In one farming area in Gunma, north of Tokyo, farmers have been forced to idle their fields owing to a labor shortage, said an official at the local farm cooperative. Before the coronavirus, the area had employed 200 to 300 foreign workers from countries such as China and Vietnam on internship programs.

The border opening for international students should also be a relief for Japanese-language schools. In a July survey, a majority said they would go out of business within a year if the entry ban stayed in place.

However, the Japan Medical Association’s president, Toshio Nakagawa, said he feared relaxing restrictions could undo the progress the country has made in nearly wiping out the Covid-19 virus, perhaps by introducing new variants.

“I wonder whether the virus which we’re getting under control in Japan and the virus that is once again spreading overseas in many countries are the same thing," Dr. Nakagawa said. “We need to be careful about border control."

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