Japan will begin granting re-entry to foreign residents who have been locked out of the country for months by a travel ban aimed at limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Wednesday.
Speaking at a meeting of the government's task force on the coronavirus response, Abe also said Japan will enter into discussions with 12 Asian economies including China, South Korea and Taiwan on ways to safely resume travel.
The re-entry of foreign residents irrespective of their specific visa status will take place "gradually," Abe said. Of the 208,000 currently abroad, roughly 88,000 people including students and skilled workers who left the country before the travel ban took effect will be given priority.
The ban, however, has not been fully lifted. Those who departed later or have newly obtained a visa with plans to move here will be allowed in at a later date, a government official said.
Japan's expatriate community has been outraged by the government's prior refusal to let foreign residents back in except under "special exceptional circumstances," a nebulous set of criteria that includes the death of a family member.
Many other countries that have imposed travel bans such as Germany and France do not discriminate between citizens and foreign residents in granting re-entry.
The resumption of travel to and from the 12 Asian economies, which also include Brunei, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar and Singapore, is contingent on discussions for extra coronavirus prevention measures including mandatory testing, a government official said.
Japan will also consider allowing in a small number of businesspeople from other countries such as the United States and parts of Europe if they follow certain rules such as traveling only by private jet and limiting their stay to 72 hours.
The travel ban currently covers 129 countries and regions, with 17 areas including Nepal and Kenya to be added on Friday. Foreign travelers who have been to any of these within 14 days of arriving in Japan are being turned away.
Abe also indicated the government would begin considering conditions of entry for athletes and other individuals involved with the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, now due to kick off a year from Thursday.
Grappling with a resurgence in coronavirus infections in urban centers such as Tokyo and Osaka but eager to mitigate the pandemic's blow to the world's third-largest economy, Abe's government has already entered discussions to resume travel with several countries including Australia and New Zealand.
Flights to and from Thailand and Vietnam are set to resume this month with 14-day quarantine periods to be imposed on travelers, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters.
Meanwhile, the government on Wednesday extended its suspension of visas and visa waiver agreements with other countries by one month to the end of August.