An international flight lands in November at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo.

An international flight lands in November at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo. (Akifumi Ishikawa/Stars and Stripes)

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TOKYO – Japan will relax its COVID-19 border control requirements beginning next month in an effort to help its suffering tourism industry and struggling currency, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced Thursday.

Japan will ease border control requirements Oct. 11, removing a maximum daily entry cap, currently set at 50,000 visitors, resuming visa waivers and accepting tourists who are not traveling with a guided group, Kishida said during a news conference in New York, where he was attending the U.N. General Assembly.

He said Japan will also begin nationwide domestic travel and event discount programs.

“We hope to support accommodations, travel and entertainment industry, which have suffered from the COVID-19 crisis,” said Kishida, according to a transcript of the news conference posted on the Prime Ministers’ Office website.

Japan has gradually eased many of the strict border controls it imposed at the beginning of the pandemic. It first allowed entry to some students and business travelers, followed by tourists in guided groups and eventually dropped the requirement that travelers show a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of arrival.

But this will be the first time in more than two years that foreign tourists can easily enter the country. Coincidentally, a relatively weak yen against the U.S. dollar, a problem for domestic consumers, means more buying power for tourists entering Japan.

The yen, in a monthslong decline, fell Thursday to nearly 145 for every U.S. dollar, its lowest since 1998, before government finance authorities moved to shore up the currency, according to Reuters on Thursday.

Japan experienced a fairly low number of COVID-19 related deaths and infections throughout the pandemic, but businesses, including the tourism industry, were stifled by strict government-imposed restrictions.

With restrictions removed, Japan may see spending by inbound tourists of about 2.5 trillion yen in a year, about half of the level in 2019, Kyodo News reported Sunday, citing an economist at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc.

The easing of the border control requirement comes as infection numbers fall from a record high.

The record-breaking pandemic wave in Japan began in late June and was attributed to the omicron subvariant. It peaked in late August at levels not seen in the previous two years.

The seven-day average of new cases reached 226,915 per day on Aug. 21 with an average of 279 deaths, more than twice the average fatalities during the omicron wave over the winter, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

The one-day record for new cases reached 260,948 on Aug. 19, and record 350 peopled died of COVID-19 complications on Sept. 2, according to the center’s online data. Japan has reported 44,095 pandemic deaths.

New cases of COVID-19 per day have fallen steadily since August to about 70,000 on Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins. About 125 people still succumb to the coronavirus respiratory disease in Japan each day.

In Tokyo, the destination for many foreign travelers, the pandemic peaked July 28 with 40,395 new cases, according to the metropolitan government’s online COVID-19 records. The metro government reported 8,850 new cases on Thursday. Fatalities reached 40 per day on Aug. 12. Metro data online shows 5,758 people died in Tokyo during the pandemic.

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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