The 2020 Summer Olympics is officially postponed. A day after this unprecedented (but anticipated) announcement, the governor of Tokyo urged citizens of the city to refrain from going outside for the duration of the weekend and, soon thereafter, each of Tokyo's neighboring prefectures joined in making similar announcements in an effort to reduce the spread COVID-19. Many major companies have been doing their part in trying to limit the amount of infections through remote working and other self-implemented measures. Yet with the number of infections announced each day in Tokyo overpassing the number of infections from the day prior, Japan is under increasing pressure to make significant decisions to protect the health of its citizens, visitors and economy.

Restrictions on Travel

Just this week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) formally announced that Japanese citizens should not travel anywhere in the world for non-essential matters (Level 2). This global restriction is not a ban or restriction on travel, but rather a recommendation to refrain from such travel. This level of leniency is out of consideration of ensuring its citizens can safely return home even if the foreign country where they are sojourned is locked down. For several parts of Europe (including Germany, Sweden and Poland), China and other countries, MOFA has placed an even higher warning level, urging (but not forbidding) Japanese citizens not to travel to such countries (Level 3). This global restriction came days after the Japanese government announced that the United States has been added to the list of countries that travelers (including Japanese citizens) should self-quarantine for 14 days and avoid using public transportation, a list which already include European countries under the Schengen Agreement (including France, Germany and Italy), as well as China, South Korea and the United Kingdom.* Effective Saturday, this list will expand to include for the first time several countries in Southeast Asia (including Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia) and Africa (Egypt and the Democratic Republic of Congo). The number of countries subject to restrictions continues to dramatically rise as the days progress.

While the global restrictions for travel outside of Japan are limited to mere recommendations (rather than mandates), one of the strongest moves made by Japan to date is an entry ban, effective Friday, on foreign travelers from Iran and 18 European countries, including Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland and the Vatican. Foreign travelers who have visited any of these countries within the past 14 days of attempted entry into Japan would be refused entry. This comes in addition to existing bans of parts of Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Iran, China and South Korea, as well as total bans on foreign travelers from Iceland and San Marino. Mayer Brown's Global Travel Navigator tracks such worldwide travel restrictions.

The travel restrictions taken by the Japanese government have reflected the classifications made by the Ministry of Affairs on the risk of infection for each country. In principle, countries classified as Level 2 risks have been subject to travel restrictions in the form of 14 day quarantines and avoidance of public transportation, whereas foreign visitors from or having travelled to countries classified as Level 3 risks have been banned from entering the countries. Such restrictions and bans, however, do not prevent Japanese citizens from entering Japan (subject to health screening).

Special Measures Law

As the spread of COVID-19 continues to rise domestically and internationally, the need for more heavy-handed measures may be coming in the near future. In preparation for one such possibility, the Japanese government passed a special measures law that gives the Prime Minister the authority to declare a state of emergency due to the spread of COVID-19. This law is an amendment to an existing law that was first enacted in 2012 to protect the health of Japanese citizens from new types of influenza and other infectious diseases. The law, in its original and amended form, has yet to actually be utilized. There are some opponents to the law, arguing that the application of the law would be a limitation on human rights or that the measures enforceable under the law are not necessary.

Some of the key attributes of the law are as follows:**

  • COVID-19 is temporarily recognized as a new type of influenza for a period of up to two years from the date of enactment of the amended law (March 14, 2020).
  • A state of emergency can be declared if COVID-19 spreads rapidly and significantly affects people's lives.
  • During a state of emergency, prefectural governors of Japan can demand that people stay indoors and can also restrict or ban use of certain establishments (e.g., schools, movie theaters).
  • Local governments can demand for essential supplies (e.g., medicine and food).
  • Local governments can take over private land and buildings for use as temporary medical care facilities.

Conclusion

Japan continues to ramp up its travel restrictions on both its citizens and foreign visitors. Japan has yet to turn to more aggressive approaches as many of their counterparts around the world have, such as full-scale lockdowns and state-mandated self-isolations. Nevertheless, as the decisions of the Japanese government in recent weeks indicate, Japan is willing to and is making a concerted effort to join the international movement to limit the spread of COVID-19.

 

*For the most recent list of travel restrictions into Japan, please refer to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare website at https://www.mhlw.go.jp/stf/seisakunitsuite/bunya/kenkou_iryou/covid19_qa_kanrenkigyou_00003.html.

** A summary of the original special measures law by the Cabinet Secretariat is available at http://www.cas.go.jp/jp/influenza/pdf/130413houritu_gaiyou.pdf (in Japanese).

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