As of October 11, Japan’s entry rules for foreign visitors have almost completely returned to the pre-pandemic status quo. The only remaining COVID-19-related entry requirement for tourists is either a valid vaccination certificate (showing at least three doses) or a negative pre-flight test. The visa exemption arrangements for 68 countries and regions are back in force, too. You can (and should!) check the latest information at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and Ministry of Foreign Affairs websites (see below) , but if you would have been allowed into Japan as a visitor in 2019, you can most likely get in on the same terms right now.
But that doesn’t mean everything is the way it used to be. The pandemic is not considered “over” in Japan. It continues to affect how people shop, dine, and travel. The best way to avoid awkward faux pas and keep your visit positive is to know what to expect.
Inbound travel to Japan may have resumed but somethings have changed in the wake of the pandemic Photo by Daniel Lim on Unsplash
Behind the Mask
For visitors from non-Asian countries, the biggest difference will likely be that people in Japan are still wearing masks.
Masks were never legally mandated in Japan during the pandemic, but when the government urged everyone to wear them in public spaces, the population obliged, and little has changed since. (This smooth adoption of universal masking may have been aided by a longstanding Japanese tradition of wearing masks when ill to protect others, which dates back at least to the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918.)
The government itself has softened its masking recommendations. To summarize the current guidance:
・Inside, you should wear a mask, unless you are at least 2 meters from other people and you are not talking
・Outside, you don’t need to wear a mask, unless you are less than 2 meters from other people and you are talking
As long as you follow these guidelines, you are being perfectly responsible as far as the government is concerned. However, a significant proportion of people—in big cities, the overwhelming majority—continue to mask in all public spaces, inside or outside. If you decide to go unmasked on a crowded city street because you will not be talking to anyone, you will certainly be within the letter and spirit of the government guidelines, but you will also be surrounded by masked people, and will therefore stand out, attract stares, and possibly make people uncomfortable.
On the other hand, there are many outdoor areas where even Japanese people remove their masks: parks, for example, or mountain trails. It’s generally safe to take your cue from the people around you. If they’re mostly unmasked, then it shouldn’t bother anyone if you are too.
The Great Indoors
Indoor spaces are another story. Masks are required in virtually every cafe, restaurant, bar, shop, convenience store, museum, gallery, hotel lobby, train station (and train, and bus, and taxi), and municipal building in Japan. You will even be expected to wear a mask when visiting hot springs (onsen) or bathhouses (sento), although fortunately not in the actual bath (you can leave it in the changing room with your clothes.)
In some cafes, restaurants, and bars, staff may request you to keep your mask on until you are actually eating and drinking. Some places are stricter about this than others, though, and many places have no requests or requirements in place at all. You can generally take your cue from those around you.
Incidentally, inside or outside, hardly anyone will care what type of mask you wear. Some people in Japan wear N95 respirators, but surgical or even simple cloth masks are more common. The general sentiment seems to be that when a mask is required, any mask will do.
Hand Sanitizer, Plastic Dividers, and More
Many of the anti-COVID-19 measures adopted early in the pandemic by stores and other establishments remain in force today. You will often see a bottle of hand sanitizer just by the door, although at this point in the pandemic the proprietor may or may not care if you use it. (If you are specifically asked to do so, of course, you should.)
Similarly, many cafes and restaurants still use plastic dividers between or even on tables. If you find your party split up by an unwanted divider, you can try asking the staff if it can be removed. Simply moving it yourself without asking is a gamble: some places will not care, but in other cases it will ruffle feathers unnecessarily.
Buildings like museums and galleries that see hundreds or thousands of visitors daily may have special equipment for checking temperatures at the door. What to do is usually obvious—for example, position your head in the outline on the screen and wait for the device to deem you non-feverish—and if you accidentally miss a step there will likely be a staff member whose job is to explain it to you.
The Flip Side: No Vaccine Passports, No Contact Tracing Aps
Unlike some other countries, Japan never really embraced vaccine passports or check-in/contact tracing apps in an everyday context, and this remains the case. When visiting a gallery or theater or other space where you will be in close contact with others for a prolonged period, you may be asked for your name and contact details in case of a cluster event, but even this is rare now.
Being a Respectful Visitor
Not everyone in Japan agrees that all of the above measures are necessary, but most people do agree that none of it is onerous enough to make a fuss over. To ensure that your trip is a positive experience for both you and those around you, the basic rule is simple: don’t intentionally do things that make people uncomfortable. All the above may sound like a lot, but you’ll quickly get the into the swing of things and have a wonderful time in Japan. We look forward to seeing you!
Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare websites:
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs website: www.mofa.go.jp/ca/fna/page4e_001053.html