Japan relaxes COVID restrictions

Why Japan has decided to relax COVID restrictions, including those around travel
12 May 2023

Interview with 

Sir David Warren


Japanese flag


Perhaps in the wake of the World Health Organization announcing last week that Covid is “no longer a crisis,” Japan’s government has finally downgraded the legal status of the virus in the country. It essentially means that Covid will no longer be in a special category, but will now be treated among diseases like seasonal flu. Meanwhile, if there is a spike in the Covid rate, a state of emergency will not be declared and people will be allowed to make decisions for themselves. Japanese health officials, however, are still urging caution and have said they will now begin preparing for the next major public health crisis. So, what should we make of it? Sir David Warren served as the UK’s ambassador to Japan between 2008 and 2012...

David - Japan has been wary about fully unlocking. That's certainly true. I think that when we look at Japan's reaction to the COVID pandemic worldwide, we are seeing a highly developed country with extremely good health systems and world class science research. Nevertheless, extremely cautious about the risks of a pandemic hitherto not experienced by any nation. And Japan has, I think it is fair to say, probably erred on the side of minimising risks as far as possible in dealing with the issue of covid. Although I never wants to make too many generalisations of a cultural kind there, there is a certain cultural issue there in terms of Japan's risk aversion, particularly when facing an unknown problem

Rhys - And the country's health chiefs are still urging caution to some extent. Why do you think that is, David?

David - I think they will be influenced in part by geopolitical concerns. Japan began to open up after a long period of restrictions late last year when it liberalised inward travel for foreign travellers as well as foreigners who were not resident in Japan. But with the upsurge of cases in China, which followed Xi Jinping's sudden lift of anti COVID policy measures in late 2022, I think the Japanese were hesitant about potential implications of a sudden upsurge of cases in China crossing over into Japan and what that would mean in terms of the Japanese health precautions. That wave has come and to a degree gone and now I think the Japanese feel a little more confident in liberalising the measures that they have put in place, both for foreign travellers generally and for Chinese travellers specifically.

Rhys - And do you think that the approach to COVID relates very much to the country's experience of SARS in the early 2000s? I mean, the health ministry has said that it's preparing for the next public health crisis and even the next pandemic.

David - I think it does. The SARS experience is very specific. I've lived in Japan on and off over many years since the 1970s and I know that Japan is a society which takes health extremely carefully. Where mask wearing, if you fear that you have or might get an infection, is very common where hygiene is extremely important. Those risk-averse behaviours definitely influence the development of Japanese policy. When I was in Japan in late 2022, not long after it had opened up and I was there on my first trip back for over three years, I was struck that mask wearing, which I'd expected to be pretty widespread, was almost universal, including in the streets as well as in crowded trains and tubes. That requirements to have one's temperature taken when one went into almost any public or private building were very widespread. And you could see how assiduous the Japanese are in sticking to the letter as well as the spirit of anti COVID precautions and checking that there's no danger of passing infections. So I think that we are seeing a final decision to liberalise, which reflects the WHO's announcement that the emergency has ended, but it's come after a period of extremely careful reflection analysis and great care in developing public policy.

Rhys - Japan's approach of course has had a huge impact on tourism, not least the Tokyo Games which were postponed and then held under very strict circumstances. How much do you think the decisions are going to reopen and encourage tourists back to Japan has played in this decision?

David - I think it represents an enormous element of the overall policy consideration. The number of foreign visitors plunged in Japan over the period of 2020, 2021. Obviously the money that they spent was a tiny fraction of what they were spending before the pandemic broke over us at the end of 2019. So I think there is a very strong economic case for liberalising these restrictions as soon as they felt they reasonably could. And we've seen maybe in common with a lot of other countries, the way in which the Japanese government have sought to keep these two elements in balance, opening up the country so that the country can begin to earn money not just from tourists, but from business interaction doing so carefully and cautiously so that they cannot be accused of putting the public's health at risk. But you are right. It's a very, very important element of this.


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