When will Japan lift its travel ban and reopen for international individual travelers? Will borders open as normal in Fall 2022? These are questions among those planning trips to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc. We monitor foreign visitor advisories, news, and more for answers. (Updated October 1, 2022.)
The good news is that we now have an answer to those threshold questions we’ve been asking for nearly two years: Japan Will Reopen to Individual Tourists in October 2022! There are still some unknowns, but Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has offered new guidance that we’re covering in Japan Reopening to Individual Tourists: FAQ, Rules & Guidelines. That’ll help you prepare for arrival, and potentially save time at the airport.
We will be reporting from Japan extensively in the coming weeks about our experiences, what it’s like as a foreign visitor in 2022 (and early 2023), what has changed, crowd conditions, expenses of visiting Japan in 2022-2023 with the weaker yen, and much more.
Please subscribe to our FREE email newsletter and stay tuned if you’re not visiting until December 2022 or later and are curious about how things are on-the-ground for tourists in Japan post-reopening.
We typically spend a couple of months in Japan each year, and are ecstatic to be returning after nearly 3 years away. We are eager to revisit our favorite places, see friends in Japan for the first time in over two years, and continue creating this site’s wealth of free planning resources. We’re excited about this great (but overdue) news, but also go in knowing that things will be different, in ways both good and bad.
For these two-plus years, we’ve been closely monitoring the situation in Japan, watching several hours of NHK each day and reading multiple Japanese news sources. All of this in the hope for some clarity as to when the country will fully reopen and Japan will begin allowing international tourists to enter once again.
What follows is based on that research and fixation with the on-the-ground situation in Japan. We’re preserving this for posterity, but everything that follows is now (thankfully!) obsolete information. Refer to the links above for the latest on Japan’s October 11, 2022 reopening to individual tourists!
Japan is now allowing foreign nationals to enter Japan for purposes other than tourism so long as they have a sponsor in the country. This includes business travelers on short stays, students in study abroad programs, participants in technical internships, both guided & unguided tour groups, spouses or children (and other relatives) of a Japanese national/permanent resident, others with special exceptional circumstances, and those who would provide a “public benefit” to Japan.
This excludes individual tourists. It is still not possible to visit Japan for self-guided tourism right now, and won’t be possible until early October 2022. That’s the vast majority of foreign visitors, especially those reading an English language post on a website with “travel” in the name.
With that in mind, let’s cover how we got here, why Japan maintains the strictest among the Group of Seven developed nations, and what could cause that to change.
Again and again, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said that Japan “will continue to consider how the measures should be by taking into account the infection situations at home and abroad, border control measures taken by other nations, and progress in the rollout of vaccine boosters.”
Kishida has also acknowledged that Japan’s border control measures are the strictest among Group of Seven nations, and expressed a desire/need to bring Japan in line with its counterparts. “This is the first step in our gradual easing of the [border] restrictions,” Kishida has said.
As for why Japan’s border is still closed over a year after most democracies reopened, that can largely be explained by the country’s apprehensiveness of outsiders.
For better or worse, Japan is an insular and culturally conservative country–a characteristic that is often valued by visitors. Not so much in the last couple of years, as this has been reflected in policy-making. Japan has vilified and scapegoated foreigners and had an overly aggressive approach to its borders.
Due to this and other policies, Japan has lagged behind economically, seeing slower recovery than the United States and other counterparts that have more aggressively reopened. Economic benefits of international tourists is one big reason why Japan is expected to reopen its border.
Boosting tourism was core to the late former Prime Minister Abe’s economic revitalization, and both subsequent prime ministers have indicated their intentions to maintain continuity with those plans. However, the number of foreign visitors to Japan dropped to 245,900 last year, the lowest since 1964, as the country enforced tighter border controls. Compared with the pre-pandemic level in 2019, it dropped 99.2 percent. That’s the sharpest fall on record according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
Economists fear a “double dip” recession in Japan due to the prolonged closures and restrictions. Decreased tourism plus falling exports, an increased consumption tax, reduced consumer spending, weak yen, and growing national debt. Japan’s economy has serious issues and inbound tourism was previously a bright spot.
In other words, reopening to international visitors will be important to the health of Japan’s consumption-driven economy at some point in the not too distant future. This becomes increasingly true as the yen weakens due to the Bank of Japan continuing to pursue its loose monetary policy while the United States Federal Reserve, European, and other central banks raise interest rates. Quite simply, Japan is inflicting pain on itself by remaining closed.
There are also signs that stringent travel measures, including the border closure, are having a greater impact on Japan’s economy than previously believed. This is despite Japan’s “Go to Travel” campaign that subsidized domestic travel, which was offered at various times during the last two years.
According to data from the Japan Tourism Agency, stays at hotels and other accommodation facilities hit another record low in Japan last year–breaking the previous record set in 2020. The total of guests at hotels and inns was 315.75 million, down 4.8% from 2020 and 47% from 2019. (This number includes hotels used as government quarantine facilities, not just leisure stays.)
The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party recognizes these problems and realizes it needs to rebuild Japan’s economy. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stated that his top priority was formulating new economic measures and implementing these goals. The government will also take measures to stimulate and jump-start the economy.
Despite the aforementioned numbers, Japan is maintaining its goal of attracting 60 million foreign visitors by 2030. Additionally, the Japan National Tourism Organization has set 2024 as its goal for recovering to 2019 international travel levels. Both of these statements are reassuring given the current border closures, and indicate that Japan will unwind its travel ban in months, not years.
Against that economic backdrop, let’s take a look at the latest changes to Japan’s reopening plans…
We have more good news! Multiple media outlets, including NHK, Kyodo, Nikkei, and Fuji TV are all reporting that Japan’s government is planning to further relax restrictions and border measures with an eye to implementing the revisions by the start of October 2022.
The specifics are not consistent among outlets, so let’s start with where they’re in agreeance.
First, there is consensus that the daily arrival cap, which is currently set at 50,000, will be eliminated entirely.
This is a necessary prerequisite for further reopening and the resumption of more inbound international flights, but this alone was not an obstacle dissuading most international visitors. While the daily number of arrivals was higher pre-closure, we assumed that 50,000 is the level at which this cap becomes immaterial with China still sidelined. Regardless, it’s good to have this removed as it eliminates an element of uncertainty and could have been an issue during peak travel times for the Japanese.
Another possibility is that Japan will allow individual foreign tourists to enter the country and exempt them from visas if they have been vaccinated three times or submit a pre-arrival test result.
This is where there is disagreement among the major outlets. Kyodo, Nikkei, and NHK are reporting that this is to be determined, with government officials still deciding whether to proceed with this plan or start with lifting the daily arrival cap. By contrast, Fuji TV is treating this as a done deal, using less ambiguous language.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reportedly plans to make a decision as early as the end of this week, according to the news outlets’ sources.
These “leaks” came after Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara spoke on Fuji TV over the weekend and stated that Japan will consider easing all three restrictions–the daily arrival cap, ban on individual tourists, and visa requirements. “We will review all three restrictions together. We have to carry it out in the not-so-distant future,” he said.
“Japan has seasonal attractions in fall and winter. We know there are a lot of people overseas who want to come to Japan,” Kihara added. “Amid the weakening yen, inbound travelers will have greatest economic effect…There are many foreign visitors who want to come visit Japan.” Kihara added that eliminating the arrival cap alone was not enough.
Kihara isn’t the only one who has been vocal about fully reopening to tourists recently. During the Bloomberg New Voices panel, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said she would open the country’s doors “tomorrow” if it were her decision. “Tourism is a big industry in Tokyo, as well as in all Japan, so this is the time to greet more foreign tourists by using this advantage of the depreciation of the yen,” she said.
Koike said that Japan’s borders would fully reopen soon. “The national border is under the management of central government,” Koike said. “As governor of Tokyo, that would be tomorrow.”
The yen has fallen to a 24-year low of ¥144 to the dollar, likely contributing to the sense of urgency in the aforementioned interviews.
Japan eased its border restrictions last week, raising the daily arrival cap from 20,000 to 50,000 and dropping the requirement for pre-arrival PCR testing for vaccinated travelers.
Japan also began allowing unguided tours, meaning ones not accompanied by tour conductors. This is specifically for “unguided tour groups” or “non-escorted visitors on package tours” and not individual tourists.
In Unguided Tours in Japan – Reopening Phase Rules, we cover what this entails and the recently-released guidelines and FAQ for these tours. Prior to those guidelines being released, we speculated on how this would work given basic logic and past precedent with prior groups who had been allowed to enter Japan. We were wrong–the unguided tours offered two steps forward but one step backwards.
We mention this in part to own past mistakes, but also as a cautionary tale. While it certainly sounds like the end is near for the Japan travel ban, it’s premature to have a high degree of confidence.
Kishida’s government has been trying to take advantage of the weak yen and accelerate growth by attracting more foreign visitors. It thus stands to reason that opening to individual tourists necessarily needs to occur–that raising the entry cap will do nothing in furtherance of their stated goal. However, as we have seen time and time again, the patently obvious conclusion often is not the outcome reached by Japan.
Moreover, how this played out with Japan’s last announcement is also instructive.
On August 23, specifics of the September relaxation measures were leaked to the same media outlets. At that time, it was unclear whether unguided tourists would be allowed to enter. On August 31, Kishida made an official announcement encompassing all of the rumored changes, including unguided tourists. (It took a few more days for the guidelines to be released, and the clarifying FAQ is still being updated.)
While presenting the above as a cautionary tale against optimism or over reliance on logic when assessing Japan’s decisions, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. (I’m sorry, I can’t help myself. Like a moth to a flame.)
First, there’s already the realization that unguided tours–like guided tours before them–will not move the needle on inbound tourism in any meaningful way. It’s another symbolic measure, and coming at a time when an increasing number of international visitors have already moved on to other destinations and pent-up demand has begun fizzling out. The number of people anxiously awaiting Japan’s reopening is shrinking, not growing.
Second, there’s awareness within the Kishida administration that the window of opportunity to reopen the border is closing. This is something we’ve pointed out in our best and worst case scenarios in prior updates, but there’s only a limited amount of time between waves.
Over two years into this, the seasonality of COVID transmission is well-established. Cases are currently in freefall and will continue decreasing next month before bottoming out sometime between late October and early November. There will be a winter resurgence. It could start as soon as late November, but is more likely in December.
Reopening to individual tourists in October presents minimal (political) risk and maximum (economic) upside. Public opinion polls show that most voters have already moved on from COVID to assorted scandals; the minority who still care will see no immediate increase in cases correlating with the border reopening.
Frankly, the miscalculation here by the Kishida administration is thinking that this will have an immediate impact on inbound travel. Those reading regular updates on Japan’s reopening are not representative of international travelers at large. Most people need months of time between booking and traveling; very few plan and take last-minute trips–especially international ones.
Obviously, the easing has to occur at some point and this lag will always play out, but the notion that this moves the needle for fall is misguided. Autumn is already a lost cause. At best, this helps with winter. More likely, the impact won’t be fully felt until next year’s cherry blossom season.
One wildcard is the downgrade of COVID’s legal status. Several recent updates have centered around Japan’s internal debate over whether to strip COVID-19 of its special status and downgrade it to the same level as the flu in Japan’s infectious disease categories.
It’s been our perspective that this was a necessary prerequisite to welcoming individual tourists as there would no longer be a need for a responsible receiving party to monitor travelers and act as a liaison for infected individuals. Given that none of the recent reports have even mentioned COVID’s status in regard to reopening, it’s possible our perspective was wrong. Or, that this barrier does still exist and Japan will have to create a “solution” for it (travel insurance?) for individual tourists. Either way, that’s something to continue keeping in mind.
Also as previously mentioned, recent poll data also shows the public is now far less concerned with COVID than the economy, Unification Church scandal, Abe’s state funeral, and other issues. It’s entirely possible that Kishida sees this polling and his sagging approval numbers and realizes that it’s time to move forward. That there’s more upside than downside risk in reopening and encouraging more economic activity.
As we’ve stressed repeatedly, Japan’s populace has been among the most cautious in the world with regard to COVID-19. Human behavior and sentiment don’t change overnight, even if it’s economically advantageous and objectively safer to do so. Statements by politicians and medical advisors, gradual border relaxation measures, and other changes could be interpreted as Japan laying the groundwork for a resumption of normalcy and the country’s eventual reopening. It now appears that the time is here–or coming very soon.
With all of this said, I’ll present my revised best, worst, and base-case scenarios for Japan’s reopening to individual tourists…
Let’s start with the best-case scenario. This assumes that Japan downgrades COVID-19 from its special status to Category 5 literally any day now or that this is not a necessary prerequisite to an individual tourist reopening. (With the possible workaround of travel insurance or some other awkward “fix.”)
Critically, this would eliminate the legal requirement of a responsible receiving party for visitors to Japan. In such a scenario, the borders could almost immediately return to their normal pre-closure status in early October 2022. With this, the visa exemption would be reinstated, making that a non-issue. The arrivals cap would also be eliminated in this scenario.
Then there’s the middle ground or base case. This is now the same as the best-case scenario. In short, the early October 2022 reopening is not just our most optimistic view–it’s now what we expect to happen.
To differentiate the two, I’ll also allow for a middle ground possibility of a bifurcated decision with the individual tourist reopening a few weeks after the entry cap elimination. Let’s say that happens in early November 2022.
This is would allow a bit of wiggle room for Japan’s slow and belabored decision-making process that involves a lot of “careful consideration” and “evaluating the situation.” If anything has been well-established during the last two-plus years, it’s that inaction is Japan’s baseline, and anything that does happen occurs gradually and in stages.
Finally, the worst-case scenario is that Japan instead opts to revive its “Go to Travel” campaign just in time for fall colors season, and uses that to buoy the tourism sector through December 2022. It’s possible the country views this as sufficient for tourism businesses to stave off bankruptcy or other financial hardship for another few months.
If/when there’s another winter resurgence in cases, the reopening can would effectively be kicked down the road for a few more months. That would mean individual tourists would not be welcomed back to Japan until sometime in the first half of 2023. I’m inclined to say Spring 2023, but it’s easy to envision a worst-case that isn’t until summer.
Our view is that the worst-case scenario is now highly unlikely. Japan relaxed its border measures earlier in September while still being #1 in the world for new cases. This indicates that Japan is finally ready to move forward and sets the precedent for future changes during waves. Who knows–it still may take until early 2023 to fully downgrade the legal status of COVID. But whatever winter wave occurs (and one will happen), that’s unlikely to be an obstacle to reopening progress, as was the case last year.
With all of that in mind, we remain cautiously optimistic that individual tourists will be allowed to enter Japan sooner rather than later. The political and economic appetite for fully relaxation now clearly exists, and there’s a vocal chorus of politicians in Japan–including those who were previously in favor of closed borders–championing reopening. It’s now the popular position being advanced publicly by politicians, not just being advocated by Keidanren or Japan’s business lobby.
Japan fully reopening in full is all but inevitable at this point. It will happen soon. The end is near.
It’s thus our view that Japan reopening in some capacity to individual tourists in October 2022 is a very realistic scenario. As improbable as it might’ve seemed even a week ago, Japan welcoming back international visitors who are not part of tours (guided or unguided) sometime before November 2022 is likely. It’s pretty clear the government is focused on moving forward. As frustrating as this whole process has been, Japan is not still (completely) stuck in March 2020.
As always, Japan is cautious and conservative, with a slow and belabored decision-making process that often embodies “analysis paralysis” and usually defies logic. That’s a wild card that could further extend any timeline. However, Japan is now joining the rest of the world as people are ready to move on with life.
We’ll keep watching the news and keep you posted if/when there are further developments about Japan reopening and allowing entry to travelers from the United States, Canada, Europe, and beyond. Again, if you’d like to be notified as soon as more details are released or rumored, subscribe to our free email newsletter for ongoing updates and alerts:
If you’re planning a visit to Japan, our recommendation at this point is to target sometime in November 2022 at the earliest. In our view, koyo (autumn leaves) season is a good bet, and that takes place from mid-November through December. That’s simply a good time to visit Japan and, hopefully, the country will be open to individual tourists by then.
Speaking of which, check out our Japan Fall Colors Forecast & Autumn Foliage Viewing Guide to get started on planning your trip to visit Japan’s popular fall foliage cities, including Kyoto, Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Miyajima, Hiroshima, Himeji, and Nara. That also offers tips for avoiding crowds and strategy for visiting the best temples, shrines, and evening illuminations.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan, check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other things to do! We also recommend consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto and Ultimate Guide to Tokyo to plan.
Would you consider visiting Japan later this year, or is international travel out of the question for you anytime soon? How do you view the news about guided tours? Think those will stick around for several months, or are simply theater to shift public opinion? Are you concerned that Japan won’t reopen until 2023, or think October 2022 is still realistic? Think the need to adapt and live with the endemic virus will outweigh fear when it comes to Japan’s reopening plans? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? If you’re planning your trip to Japan, what do you think about these itineraries? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!
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