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Japan shuts borders to nonresident foreigners in response to omicron variant

A man stands in front of a monitor showing flight schedules at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on Nov. 29. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
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Three weeks after reopening its borders to a limited number of foreigners newly arriving in the country, Japan is slamming shut again amid growing fears of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced Monday that the country would take emergency measures for at least one month, while researchers study the variant and assess its risks.

Beginning Tuesday, Japan will bar nonresident foreigners, including business travelers, international students and foreign workers, from entering the country. The ban applies to all countries, not just ones with confirmed cases of the omicron variant. Japanese citizens and foreign residents are exempt.

The decision makes Japan one of the first countries, and by far the largest, to enact widespread border closures in response to the newest variant, alongside Israel and Morocco.

Japan and South Korea never did full lockdowns. It left lessons on how to coexist with the virus.

“This is a preventive, emergency measure to avoid a worst-case scenario,” Kishida said. “This is an extraordinary measure for the time being just until we know more about the omicron variant.”

The United States and several other countries imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and other African countries after the omicron variant was discovered. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Japan has been closed to tourists for most of the coronavirus pandemic, including for this year’s Olympics. About 370,000 foreigners approved to newly enter Japan before the pandemic have not been able to do so, including about 150,000 international students, according to Nikkei Asia news.

With nearly 80 percent of the population fully vaccinated and positive case numbers plummeting, Japan partially reopened on Nov. 8 to allow new arrivals of students and technical interns.

Monday’s announcement effectively reverses that decision.

On Nov. 26, Japan raised its cap on approved travelers. On Monday, Japan lowered that cap again to 3,500 from 5,000 a day.

Japan recorded just 73 positive cases — the lowest in 17 months — and no deaths on Sunday. Tokyo reported eight cases on Monday, out of about 3,700 tests conducted in the capital.

The country’s Nikkei stock benchmark dropped in response to the border announcement. The index had been virtually flat before the news but then slumped to finish down 1.6 percent Monday.

Japan had allowed fully vaccinated travelers to waive the last four days of their 14-day quarantine upon testing negative. But under the new restrictions Monday, all citizens and foreign residents reentering Japan must quarantine the full 14 days even if they are fully vaccinated, Kyodo News reported.

Japanese citizens and residents returning from countries with confirmed omicron variant cases must quarantine in a government facility for up to 10 days. Japan has no confirmed cases of the variant but is investigating one positive case of a traveler from Namibia, who arrived Sunday.

Japan is scheduled to begin administering booster shots later this week, Kishida said.

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