As World Shuts Borders to Stop Omicron, Japan Offers a Cautionary Tale

With the emergence of the new Omicron variant of the coronaviruses late last week, countries across the globe rushed to close their borders to travelers from southern Africa, even in the absence of scientific information about whether such measures were necessary or likely to be effective in stopping the virus.

The world's third-largest economy will be closed to travelers from everywhere, Japan announced on Monday.

It's a familiar tactic for Japan. Most of the world started to travel again after the country barred tourists early in the Pandemic. Despite recording the highest vaccination rate among the world's large wealthy democracies and seeing its coronaviruses caseloads plunge by 99 percent since August, it only opened this month to business travelers and students.

Japan provides a sobering case study of the human and economic cost of closed borders. Thousands of life plans have been suspended because of Japan's isolation.

Since he left Japan for Indonesia two weeks after her parents blessed their marriage plans, she has not been able to see him in person.

Ms. Hirose and her fiancée, Dery Nanda Prayoga, were not able to find a path to a reunion. The logistical challenges were steep as Indonesia started allowing some visitors. The couple has made a lot of video calls. They play billiards on Facebook Messenger or watch Japanese variety shows online when they run out of things to talk about.

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For the past 19 months, Ayano Hirose has not been able to see her Indonesian fiancée.

Ms. Hirose wrote letters to the foreign and justice ministries asking for an exemption to allow Mr. Dery to come to Japan. We will hold out hope and think positively.

The United States, Britain, and most of Europe reopened their borders to travelers who had been immunized, but Japan and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region did not. Japan, Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia, and South Korea are all moving back in.

Since the start of the Pandemic, China has barred international tourists, but it is still issuing visas for work or diplomatic purposes. Since the beginning of the Pandemic, Taiwan has banned nearly all non-natives from entering. Australia, which only recently started allowing citizens and visa holders to travel abroad, said on Monday that it would delay a relaxation of its border restrictions. Travelers from southern Africa have been barred from Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand.

The Prime Minister of Japan told reporters on Monday that he had decided to remove the relaxations for business travelers and international students in order to avoid the worst-case scenario.

The government decided to close again because it wanted to preserve its success fighting the virus and prevent the kind of strain on the health care system that it experienced during the summer.

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The New York Times reported on the shuttering of stores in Tokyo.

Business leaders in Japan had been calling for a more aggressive reopening after the emergence of the Omicron variant.

The director of communications at Keidanren, Japan's largest business lobbying group, said in an interview earlier this month that Japan did what most countries around the world did at the beginning of the Pandemic.

He said that the continuation of border restrictions threatened to slow economic progress. Mr. Masaki said that Japan would be left behind in the Edo Period.

In Southeast Asia, where the economies are dependent on tourism revenues, Japan has been lagging behind. Thailand and Cambodia have recently reopened to tourists from all over the world. Some countries, like Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, allowed tourists from certain countries to enter restricted areas.

Japan resisted the pressure to reopen. Japan has been cautious throughout the Pandemic, with the exception of its decision to hold the Summer Olympics. It was early to close its borders. After conducting its own clinical trials, it rolled out its vaccine campaign. Dining and drinking hours were restricted in many prefectures.

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A vaccine drive was held in Osaka last month. Japan has been reluctant to reverse its successes.

Michael Mroczek, a lawyer in Tokyo who is the president of the European Business Council, said that foreign companies could not bring in executives or other employees to replace those who were moving back home or to another international posting.

Business travelers and new employees should be allowed to enter if they follow strict testing and are free of diseases, the council said in a statement on Monday.

The council said that trust should be put in Japan's success. Japan and its people are in a good position to reap the economic rewards.

Business leaders want science to guide their decisions. Christopher LaFleur, a former American ambassador to Malaysia and special adviser to the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, said that the government's policies have limited the impact of the Pandemic in Japan.

He said that we need to look at the science to see if a complete border shutdown is justified.

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Students have also been thrown into uncertainty. More than 130,000 people have been accepted to universities or language schools in Japan and have been waiting months to enter the country to begin their studies.

The 19-year-old wanted to study Japanese in Japan over the summer. She has been going to an online language class in Tokyo every morning.

Ms. Dittmer said that she was anxious and desperate because she had no idea when she would be able to enter Japan and keep up with her studies. I can understand the need for caution, but I hope that Japan will use immigration precautions such as tests andQuarantine instead of its walls-up policy.

Many regions rely on foreign tourism and have been flattened by the border closings.

When Japan reopened to business travelers and international students earlier this month, the owner of a woodblock prints shop in Asakusa hoped that it was a sign that the country was getting back to normal.

He said that he thought that we could have more tourists and that Asakusa could come back to life again. The government is taking precautionary measures, but it is still disappointing.

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Public health experts are divided on how much more Japan should relax its border controls, with some urging caution and others saying it can be done safely with an effectiveQuarantine system.

Mr. Dery and Ms. Hirose are waiting. After his Japanese work visa expired, Mr. Dery returned to Indonesia in April 2020 to work at an automotive parts maker. He proposed to Ms. Hirose three months before he left.

Ms. Hirose booked a flight to Jakarta for the couple to marry, but the borders were closed in Indonesia so they couldn't get married.

Mr. Dery said that their marriage plan fell apart. There is no clarity on how long the epidemic would last.

Mr. Dery was able to get a passport last week and was hoping to go to Japan in February or March.

He said he was not surprised by Japan's border closings. He said he was hopeful. The border is about to close again.

He said he didn't know what else to do. This epidemic seems endless.

Reporting was done by Hisako Ueno and Makiko Inoue in Tokyo, Dera Menra Sijabat in Jakarta, Richard C. Paddock in Thailand, John Yoon in South Korea, Raymond Zhong in Taiwan, andYan Zhuang in Australia.