Japan is out of sight and threatening to lose its mind with one of its main lines of communication to the world still cut off – the tens of millions of tourists who return home each year with gushing tales of encounters with locals , culture and food of the country. It was the only clear success of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic program. What was once a tourist backwater that drew just 5 million visitors in 2003 has seen a surge, pushing the number to over 30 million in 2019.
A tourist cycle that attracted investment took hold, which then attracted more tourists. Foreign spending surged, department stores added Chinese, Korean and English-speaking staff, and hotel construction boomed. About 40 million visitors were expected in 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics were scheduled. Instead, only 4 million came before the doors closed due to the pandemic. The Olympic Games have succeeded in 2021 without even national spectators.
While Japan has recently, and belatedly, started admitting students and long-term workers, it remains closed to tourists. Neighboring South Korea is reopening to vaccinated travelers and even “Fortress New Zealand” says it is ready to reopen, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has not yet indicated a potential date for the return of tourists.
Like many of the country’s Covid stops, strict border controls once had their place. Japan’s cautious approach to the pandemic has been vindicated, with fewer Covid deaths in the two years since the pandemic began than the United States has seen in March alone.
But we no longer know what Japan is waiting for. The population is well vaccinated, with more than 80% of people aged 65 or over having been vaccinated. It’s not like he’s preventing an alien threat. Unlike China, Japan has never attempted to pursue a Covid-zero strategy and is currently seeing around 40,000 coronavirus cases per day.
In other words, Japan simply keeps the stable door closed long after the horse has run away. Alpha, delta and omicron have all found their way despite the lack of tourists. Japan does not fully control its porous borders, with the flow of US military troops blamed by some for introducing the omicron.
One of the reasons the ban persists is that, effective or not, border controls are popular. An NHK opinion poll last month found less than a third in favor of greater openness. At least some of that can be put out of a feverish campaign against the Olympics being held, which helped amplify in a nation’s mind the message that Covid was imported.
But even before the pandemic, the Japanese were never as enamored with the idea of being a tourist paradise as the visitors. One of the main battles of the February 2020 municipal campaign in Kyoto has been the issue of over-tourism, with locals fed up with the waste and being driven out by rising land prices. Elsewhere, local governments have passed ordinances cracking down on the use of apartments as Airbnb listings.
Kishida is sensitive to the polls and aware of the upcoming summer elections. But the benefits of staying closed are debatable.
A year ago, when the world was still hoping that vaccinations could end the pandemic, waiting had merit. But it is clear now that there is no complete elimination of Covid. Fully vaccinated foreign travelers, especially from countries with fewer cases per capita than Japan, carry little additional risk. Rather, they could bring home Japan’s common-sense approach to steps such as masks.
Japan doesn’t even need to fully reopen to tourists. China, which accounted for around a third of visitors before the pandemic, will not contribute anytime soon. A cautious opening could help Kishida’s goal of bringing the economy back to “near normal”.
And the costs are rising. Loans and government support have largely kept businesses afloat, but the tourism sector needs external financing for sustainable growth. The infrastructures built for the Olympic Games are not used. Airlines, train operators and listed department stores in Japan are mostly in the red.
The broader need is also to arrest Japan’s declining relevance to the outside world. Japanese politicians have long talked about the shift from the “Japan Bashing” of the 1980s to “Japan Passing” – the phenomenon of Japan being overlooked internationally, coined after Bill Clinton hopped on the country during a visit to China.
It is now commonplace. But Japan’s isolation during the pandemic only accelerates this trend, crowded out by South Korean soft power and Chinese economic power.
Measures are needed to remedy this before Japan becomes in the eyes of the world – and in Wilde’s words – “merely a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art”.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
The fall of the yen is a unique dilemma in Japan: Daniel Moss
I caught Omicron. People in China thought I was dying: Shuli Ren
• Expats from Hong Kong, where is your next destination? : Anjani Trivedi
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg News editor covering Japan. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the deputy chief of the Tokyo bureau.