Japan to Keep Border Controls in Place as It Prepares for Surge of COVID Cases

Japan will continue to keep its borders closed to most foreign citizens through February.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made the announcement on Tuesday, attributing the extension to the country's internal handling of COVID-19. They will continue to focus on accelerating accessibility and distribution of booster shots for elderly people, as well as expanding hospital capacity, he said.

"The infection situations regarding Omicron are clearly different at home from abroad," Kishida told reporters, according to Japan Today, "so the framework will be maintained until the end of February."

Although COVID-19 infections previously declined in recent months, they shot back up when the Omicron coronavirus variant was detected in the country. Kishida attributed the relatively manageable spread to its tight travel bans. Currently, no more than 3,500 foreign nationals, or Japanese citizens who previously left the country, can enter Japan a day.

Tuesday saw cases across the country increase, as 962 new cases were reported just in Tokyo, and more than 6,000 cases were reported throughout Japan, making the number of cases reported since the beginning of the pandemic around 1.7 million. Furthermore, 18,400 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19. Kishida hopes that measures such as border controls will help alleviate the spread of the virus.

"We will respond flexibly to new findings," said Kishida. "What's important is to protect people's lives."

Haneda Airport
This picture taken on December 1, 2021, shows a traveler looking at a flight information board at an international flight departure floor at Tokyo's Haneda airport. Japan will continue to limit its borders through February. Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, Kishida placed three prefectures where infections apparently spread from U.S. military bases—Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima—under a pre-emergency status in which eateries were requested to shorten service hours.

Health Minister Shigeyuki Goto on Tuesday attributed the delay to preparations by local municipalities, rather than shortages of imported vaccines.

Kishida said government and municipal mass vaccination centers will be set up to facilitate the booster shots.

A further upsurge in cases is feared following the New Year holidays and a three-day weekend, a time for traveling and parties for many Japanese.

Japan's armed forces on Tuesday dispatched a team of nurses to two Okinawan hospitals to make up for a shortage of medical workers. The southern city, which is home to the majority of U.S. troops stationed in the country, reported 775 new cases.

Experts say a majority of the cases are now caused by Omicron.

Kishida noted that there still are many "unknowns" about Omicron, but it could be milder and less fatal than previous variants. That could mean that more patients will stay at home. The government has been working to reinforce remote monitoring and medical care by community doctors, Kishida said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kishida Taking Questions
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida answers questions at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on January 11, 2022. That same day, Kishida announced that Japan will continue to operate strict borders through February. Photo by STR/Jiji Press/AFP via Getty Images