Japan public backs tight borders as government seeks to ease

57 per cent of respondents to a survey said the ban on new entry by foreigners should continue. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Most Japanese want to keep strict coronavirus border controls, according to a poll, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida saying at the weekend he was looking to ease one of the most stringent policies in the developed world.

About 57 per cent of respondents to a survey conducted by national broadcaster NHK between Feb 11 to 13, said the ban on new entry by foreigners should continue, while 32 per cent said it should be loosened.

Business groups, including Japan's Keidanren, are calling for an easing of the measures - set to continue until the end of February - which they say are hampering economic activity.

Mr Kishida has said imposing the strict border restrictions helped delay the spread of the Omicron variant in Japan, allowing more time to understand its effects.

Polls showed his move was initially backed by almost 90 per cent of the public, an important consideration for the premier ahead of an Upper House election set for July.

Omicron has nonetheless spread rapidly in Japan in recent weeks, triggering the worst infection and death rates since the pandemic began.

It has weighed on support for Mr Kishida's Cabinet, which fell to 54 per cent from 57 per cent the previous month in the NHK poll.

Japan's death toll from the virus of about 20,500 is by far the lowest among the Group of Seven nations, with the tally at more than 922,000 in the United States.

Almost 80 per cent of Japanese have received two vaccine shots while only 9 per cent of the population had received a third dose as of Monday (Feb 14). 

Mr Kishida has pledged to step up the pace to a million shots a day within this month. 

While Mr Kishida's government has not given details of how it plans to ease the border controls, the Nikkei newspaper said it was looking to simplify procedures for business visitors, including by shortening quarantine periods.

A survey by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry published earlier this month found 23 per cent of German companies in Japan said they had lost substantial business due to the entry ban.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara was reported as telling Fuji TV at the weekend that Japan had the capacity to expand the number of daily entrants from 3,500 to 5,000.

With about 370,000 visa-holders waiting for entry as at Oct 1, according to the Immigration Agency, such a modest step means backlogs would take months to clear.

"It's a bit of hope, but not more," said Mr Marcus Schurmann, head of the German chamber of commerce. "It's important to have a more substantial improvement."

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