Japan, which has been very cautious throughout the pandemic, is again barring all nonresident foreigners. There is an economic and human cost.

By Motoko Rich and Hikari Hida

With the emergence of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus late last week, countries across the globe rushed to close their borders to travelers from southern Africa, even in the absence of scientific information about whether such measures were necessary or likely to be effective in stopping the virus’s spread.

Japan has gone further than most other countries so far, announcing on Monday that the world’s third-largest economy would be closed off to travelers from everywhere.

It is a familiar tactic for Japan. The country has barred tourists since early in the pandemic, even as most of the rest of the world started to travel again. And it had only tentatively opened this month to business travelers and students, despite recording the highest vaccination rate among the world’s large wealthy democracies and after seeing its coronavirus caseloads plunge by 99 percent since August.

Now, as the doors slam shut again, Japan provides a sobering case study of the human and economic cost of those closed borders. Over the many months that Japan has been isolated, thousands of life plans have been suspended, leaving couples, students, academic researchers and workers in limbo.

Ayano Hirose has not been able to see her fiancé in person for the past 19 months, since he left Japan for his native Indonesia, just two weeks after her parents blessed their marriage plans.

As Japan has remained closed to most outsiders, Ms. Hirose and her fiancé, Dery Nanda Prayoga, saw no clear path to a reunion. Indonesia had started allowing some visitors, but the logistical challenges were steep. So the couple has made do with multiple daily video calls. When they run out of things to talk about, they play billiards on Facebook Messenger or watch Japanese variety shows together online.

“We don’t want to suffer in pain at the thought of not being able to reunite in the near future,” said Ms. Hirose, 21, who has written letters to the foreign and justice ministries asking for an exemption to allow Mr. Dery to come to Japan. “So we will think positively and continue to hold out hope.”

As the United StatesBritain and most of Europe reopened over the summer and autumn to vaccinated travelers, Japan and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region opened their borders only a crack, even after achieving some of the world’s highest vaccination rates. Now, with the emergence of the Omicron variant, Japan, along with Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia and South Korea, are quickly battening down again.

China, which has barred international tourists since the start of the pandemic, is so far still issuing visas for work or diplomatic purposes, although limited flight options and lengthy quarantines have deterred travelers. Taiwan has prohibited nearly all nonresidents from entering since early in the pandemic. Australia, which only recently started allowing citizens and visa holders to travel abroad, said on Monday that it would delay a relaxation of its border restrictions. Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand have all barred travelers from southern Africa, where the variant was first reported.

Although the true threat of the new variant is not yet clear, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan told reporters on Monday that he had decided to revoke the relaxations for business travelers and international students in order to “avoid the worst-case scenario.”

The government’s decision to close again reflects its desire to preserve its successes battling the virus and to prevent the kind of strain on the health care system that it experienced over the summer during an outbreak of the Delta variant.

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