Japan's drastic easing of COVID-19 border controls may bode well for the pandemic-hit domestic tourism sector, but it could raise fears that the first inflow of visa-free foreign travelers in more than two years could spread infections at home further.
While the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged to relax novel coronavirus rules, its policy shift to scrap the cap on daily arrivals is expected to eventually prompt Japanese citizens to rely more on face masks to prevent infections.
In addition, concerns are also growing that if infections actually expand after fully reopening borders to independent foreign tourists, some discrimination against those visiting Japan from abroad, many of who may have become re-accustomed to life without masks, might prevail.
On Tuesday, Japan lifted the 50,000-person entry cap and allowed short-term visa-free travel for people coming from 68 countries and regions, such as the United States and South Korea, terminating its strict border controls, some of the most stringent among the world's major economies.
In Japan, however, nearly five months have passed since the Kishida administration eased its guidance on wearing masks, but its call for not wearing them whenever possible has not caught on widely among the public.
Although Japan no longer has an official mask mandate, mask-wearing has become a daily custom among citizens for over two years since the outbreak raged in early 2020.
Since May 20, the government has been proposing that face masks be taken off in certain circumstances, both outside and inside, but even during the harsh summer months this year, many Japanese people wore masks everywhere.
Kishida has recently promised to clarify rules on the use of masks, emphasizing Japan will "keep pace with the rest of the world."
When he visited the Suzuka circuit in the central prefecture of Mie on Sunday to watch the final race of the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix, Kishida took part in the opening ceremony held outside without putting on a face mask.
Also, on Monday, at an indoor event in Kagoshima Prefecture, southwest Japan, the prime minister removed his mask and chatted with the attendees.
Koichi Hagiuda, policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters earlier this month that the current situation surrounding mask usage should be "changed" with inbound tourism recovering in a full-fledged manner.
As numerous foreigners are set to visit Japan from this month, the ruling bloc should implement measures to "avoid troubles" between Japanese and people coming from overseas to the nation over the use of masks, Hagiuda said.
Nevertheless, critics said that the Kishida administration has given the impression to the world that foreign travelers are required to wear face masks during their stay in Japan, adding that the premier has failed to hammer out a concrete policy on the issue.
On the occasion of a state funeral for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in late September, more than 700 foreign guests, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, were asked to put on masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The request marked a sharp contrast with the state funeral for Queen Elizabeth II in London in September, in which Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako participated without face masks, along with other foreign dignitaries.
Toru Hashimoto, a former Osaka governor and now a political commentator, said in a TV program on Monday that Kishida "has totally lost a chance" to urge the public to take off face masks as he called on foreign guests to wear them at the state funeral for Abe.
"No one talked during the state funeral. It was the most effective place to send a message about the removal of face masks," Hashimoto said, adding it appears that opinions have still been divided over the use of them within the government.
But in fact, many Japanese citizens have been reluctant to remove face masks, as it remains difficult to acquire coronavirus medication despite mounting anxiety that the number of new COVID-19 cases may increase after the entry ban is lifted.
Hiroko Tanaka, a 39-year-old housewife who lives in Tokyo, told Kyodo News, "Even if the prime minister gives a clear green light for us to take off masks inside buildings, I'll keep putting on masks until we can easily buy a drug for coronavirus at a pharmacy."
She added, "I wanted the prime minister to refrain from taking steps to invite more foreigners to Japan for tourism. I'm seriously worried about infection."
As with Tanaka, some Japanese citizens have voiced unwillingness to actively interact with foreign visitors, who could carry the virus from other countries. Observers warned that such a trend might cause social rejection of people from abroad in Japan.
A Japanese government source lambasted Kishida's Cabinet for adopting a bill that would enable hotels to refuse accommodations to guests who deny taking prevention measures without justifiable reasons while they are suspected of being infected with a virus.
The bill to revise the Hotel Business Act could "let hotels decline to accommodate foreign travelers simply on the grounds that they do not wear face masks, regarded as one of the good tools to combat the coronavirus in Japan," the source said.
The Kishida administration will oblige hotels to train their employees so that they will not unfairly treat infectious disease patients, but the source said, "I'm very concerned that the law could be used as a cue of discrimination against foreigners."