TOKYO — Japan is inching closer to a full reopening, with an announcement likely in the coming days. But the country’s prolonged closure during the coronavirus pandemic has done lasting damage to its reputation as a destination for international investors, academics and tourists, experts say.
Japan strictly limits foreign arrivals out of covid-19 concerns, a scientifically specious approach that has made the country an outlier among top economies and most Asia-Pacific neighbors that have reopened to tourists.
Xenophobia has festered as policymakers and news coverage have tied foreigners to the spread of the virus. Investors, academics and international students have diverted their plans elsewhere. Even after Japan began accepting group tours recently, the intense monitoring and bureaucratic hurdles have largely kept tourists’ interest at bay.
Now, Japan faces a credibility gap as it looks to rejoin the world. Figures in business, academia, policymaking and diplomacy are concerned the closure has punctured Japan’s image as a culture that values hospitality. Even with a full reopening, Japan would need concrete steps to restore its standing, these people said.
“In 2022, the extremes between the G-7 countries and even its own neighbors … have really exacerbated this perception gap,” said Joshua W. Walker, president and chief executive of the New York-based Japan Society, which works to promote U.S.-Japan relations. “There are so many other countries that have figured this out, whether it’s Britain, Singapore, even Taiwan or Korea, that have been more or less operating in a more normal fashion … and Japan is just now taking baby steps.”
Walker is among a chorus of professionals who have become frustrated by the country’s apparent lack of interest in the perception problems caused by its isolation. They worry that without a robust effort to market Japan as open to foreigners, there will be lackluster interest from abroad and continued concern about the domestic impact.
Public opinion polls over the past year have shown broad support for border closures, which analysts say made it politically difficult for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to fully reopen before July elections. A Nikkei poll conducted in late June found 49 percent in support of lifting the daily cap on visitors and 44 percent opposed.
“I really do believe that Japan can recover from this if it puts its mind to it. But I’m not convinced that it is fully there yet,” Walker said.
The concerns come as Japan grapples with a sluggish recovery from the pandemic and a depreciating yen, which hit a 24-year low against the dollar recently. Business leaders have argued that fully resuming inbound travel would invigorate the economy and that many tourists would be eager to take advantage of the weak currency.
But the country’s approach has fueled a perception of Japan as a place that is “too cumbersome and takes too much effort” to visit, the Japan Association of Corporate Executives said this week.
“Japan has disappointed many people who love Japan and have a potential to like Japan,” said Takakazu Yamagishi, professor of political science and health policy at Nanzan University in Nagoya. “The border closure not only made many tourists who had plans to visit Japan upset, but it also will make them more cautious of Japan at least for the next few years.”
After enacting some of the most stringent pandemic restrictions, Japan began gradually reopening to some foreigners this spring, with complex requirements. Foreign tourists can book trips only through an approved tour company and must have medical travel insurance that covers covid-19. Until last week, tourists needed to be chaperoned by a guide. Visitors must wear masks unless they are six feet away from another person and not talking.
In June, when group tours resumed, only 252 tourists entered, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. In July, the number rose to about 7,900.
But that is far from pre-pandemic levels: In 2019, Japan welcomed a record 32 million foreign tourists and had aimed to reach 40 million in 2020. Before covid, 80 percent of international visitors were individuals who were not part of group tours, according to the Japan Business Federation.
Tokyo is now considering a full reopening that could take place as early as October, according to Nikkei Asia. The prime minister’s office said in a statement that the country will ease borders to be on par with Group of Seven standards, “taking into account the infection situation and needs at home and abroad, as well as the border control measures of other countries.”
The closure has created cascading effects on academia that will last years, said Tomoyuki Sasaki, an associate professor of Japanese studies at William & Mary in Virginia, who conducted a survey of hundreds of academics and students of Japan studies in the United States, Europe and Asia.
Students dropped out of Japan studies programs and researchers lost funding because they could not fulfill grant requirements to conduct research in the country, threatening the closure of Japan studies departments in some schools, the survey results show. One professor at a top-tier university responded in the survey that they are now recommending students not to study Japan as their sole focus as a result of the travel barriers.
The number of international students studying in Japan fell by roughly one-quarter between 2019 and 2021, according to Japan’s Education Ministry.
“It took a long time for predecessors to build this field. But now, it’s really falling apart because of this Japanese government’s very strict border restrictions,” Sasaki said.
“Japan really has a golden opportunity to expand foreign investment into the country, something the government has had as an objective for most of the last 20 years,” said Chris LaFleur, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. “The yen’s relative weakness at the moment, in principle, presents an incredible opportunity for those who might be interested in investing in Japan to consider it seriously.”
But domestic challenges stand in the way. Yamagishi said the government’s justifications for its border policies fueled public anxiety, stoking fears without providing facts — such as the low percentage of people testing positive at airports.
From restaurateurs to museum operators, many people fear foreigners would flout Japanese social expectations of mask-wearing and social distancing, leading to an increase in coronavirus cases.
“In foreign news, I often see images of foreigners not wearing masks,” one resident of Minato City in Tokyo remarked recently on the ward’s online public comments section.
“I would like you to think about how to deal with foreign tourists by calling attention to them in English, Chinese, Korean, and other languages,” the person wrote. “I would also like you to protect the safety of the lives of Minato City residents.”