Sakoku 2.0: COVID-19 Keeping Japan Closed

Unlike many other countries, Japan’s borders remain closed due to COVID-19, reminding some of the isolationist “Sakoku” period. Nonetheless, domestic and international pressure for Japan’s reopening persists.
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Japan’s closed border policy during COVID-19 has been dubbed “Sakoku 2.0” by a growing number of experts. “Sakoku” refers to the policy of isolation pursued by Japan from 1603-1868 during which time residents were prohibited from leaving the country and most foreigners restricted from entering. While not as restrictive as the original Sakoku policy, the current border policy has drawn international criticism for limiting the number of newcomers to enter Japan and for imposing uncertainty on those foreign residents who wish to visit their home countries.

Due to the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, Japan closed its borders to nearly all new foreign arrivals in November 2021 after a brief period of opening following nearly two years of closed borders. Recent government press releases relay the possibility that borders could remain closed until at least the end of March 2022. At this point it remains unclear when tourists, let alone new visa holders, will be able to enter the country. The reasoning behind the government’s pursuit of this strict and controversial policy can be explained by looking to two significant domestic factors: popular approval of the policy and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s own political ambition.

The public supports closed borders

One of the major explanatory factors behind the current border closure policy is the general population’s acceptance of it. Overall, Japan has experienced lower infection and death rates while still suffering acute peaks that led to occasional overwhelming of the healthcare system. Although COVID-19 has not spread in Japan at rates seen in the rest of the world, rising infections and the resulting impact on the healthcare system have led to the declaration of several states of emergency since spring 2020. Remarkably less strict that many other countries’, Japan’s states of emergency mainly revolved around requests for people to work from home, not dine out, and to close or restrict bars, clubs, and other nightlife establishments.

While a sudden peak in infections did occur during the Tokyo Olympics in July and August 2021, numbers returned to their low average up until the onset of omicron. Since then, infection rates have rapidly increased despite the country’s high vaccination rate. Japan’s vaccination efforts started with vaccinating healthcare workers in February 2021 and picked up speed in May.

Currently, approximately 78% of the total population is fully vaccinated, and booster shots are being administered as of December 2021. Still, vaccination certificates/cards are not widely used when dining out or participating in other leisure activities; instead, they are primarily used for  international travel outside of Japan. These certificates are issued by municipalities and do not exempt returnees from mandatory quarantine. In light of such factors, it is not surprising that around 75% of the general population in Japan supports keeping the borders closed to new arrivals. As vulnerable elderly outnumber the youth within the Japanese electorate, it is also argued that the current border policy is linked with the government’s desire to remain in power.

Businesses seek reopening

Much different from the general population, Japan’s business world has been calling for relaxation of the rules. Keidanren, the largest business association in Japan with members including Sony, Mitsubishi, and Toyota has repeatedly urged the government to grant entrance to students and labor covered under the technical internship scheme. Citing labor shortages and Japan’s international competitive edge, business leaders have been vocal in their demands. One of the most prominent examples of this is the CEO of e-commerce giant Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani, who has made an appeal for reopening via Twitter. Nonetheless, criticism of the underlying reasoning behind the business world’s push for reopening remains.

Japan’s technical internship scheme has long faced scrutiny based on accusations of Japanese employers’ abuse of foreign laborers. If the current program were to continue without a significant overhaul of its oversight mechanisms, further abuse could occur, critics argue. In addition, Prime Minister Kishida has adopted a policy of increasing wages in Japan, even in the face of a dire economic situation that has been caused by the pandemic. This policy aim does not mesh well with an open labor market in which employers hold the upper hand.

Nonetheless, artificial scarcity of labor created by the current immigration policy may help Kishida accomplish his goal, to a certain extent. While the outcome is not favorable for business owners, Kishida finds himself unable to walk back on the issue as policies surrounding COVID-19 have become a decisive factor in determining the longevity of Japan’s political leadership. After Shinzo Abe resigned from the premiership citing his health condition during the first wave of the pandemic, Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga also resigned last year. The Suga government was short-lived as perceptions that the prime minister’s COVID-19 policies were weak and ineffective wreaked havoc on the cabinet’s approval ratings. Therefore, it is a matter of survival for the Kishida administration to achieve a policy goal that resonates with the needs of the public.

Despite intermittent international criticism, Japan continues to keep its borders closed to new arrivals with very few exceptions. In pursuing this policy, Prime Minister Kishida is walking a fine line between appeasing his voters and avoiding the wrath of the business world. 2022 could see the possibility of sudden policy changes as the Japanese government faces both domestic and international pressure to change course.

*Elif Sercen Nurcan is a PhD student at the Graduate School of Political Science and Economics of Meiji University in Tokyo. Her primary research centers around cybersecurity and the political economy of Japan. She can be reached via LinkedIn.