The State Department raised its travel advisory to level four on Monday, putting Japan in a category with a broad swath of nations from Latin America to Europe that Americans are urged to avoid due to coronavirus concerns.
The action -- which comes despite far lower infection rates in Japan than the U.S. -- is a fresh blow to a country struggling to convince its own public and the international community that it's ready to host the Summer Olympics beginning on July 23, following their delay in 2020.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday the U.S. had informed Japan that its decision wasn't connected to the Olympics, and was based on indicators of infection rates over the preceding 28 days.
Japan is set to extend a state of emergency that covers Tokyo and most of the country's urban areas, according to the Yomiuri newspaper and other media, meaning it may not be lifted until about a month before the Olympics begin.
The Japanese government is facing opposition at home over hosting the games amid worries the sports extravaganza could turn into a Covid-19 superspreader event. Nearly 60% of respondents in a Yomiuri poll this month said the Olympics should be called off.
"Cancellation of the Olympics would likely have a lasting effect. It could dent business and consumer sentiment, both of which are critical for economic recovery," wrote Bloomberg Economics' Yuki Masujima.
The U.S. announcement comes as infections drop in most parts of Japan. On May 23, the country recorded about 39 new cases per million people, compared with about 76 in the U.S., according to Our World in Data.
The move is also largely symbolic, as Japan currently bans most inbound travel, including from the U.S. About 600 people entered Japan from the U.S. in April, down 99.6% on the same period in 2019.
A heavyweight in Japan's ruling party, Toshihiro Nikai, told reporters the country needs to decide soon whether it can hold the games in July given the current virus situation, according to broadcaster FNN.
The level 4 advisory is the highest issued by the U.S. State Department, alerting traveling Americans there is a greater likelihood of life-threatening risks and that the government may only be able to provide limited assistance. More than 100 other nations are under similar advisories, including France, Germany, Russia, Malaysia and Mexico.
The latest Covid-19 wave in Japan has largely been driven by more infectious strains from abroad, adding to concerns about inviting thousands of overseas participants, including athletes and officials. Some competitors have expressed safety concerns, with the U.S. track and field team canceling pre-Olympics training in the country.
The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee said Monday that American athletes won't be at undue risk if they compete this summer in Tokyo. While mercurial North Korea has said it would skip the Tokyo Olympics due to coronavirus concerns, no other country has formally pulled out.
"We feel confident that the current mitigation practices in place for athletes and staff by both the USOPC and the Tokyo Organizing Committee, coupled with the testing before travel, on arrival in Japan, and during Games time, will allow for safe participation of Team USA athletes this summer," the committee said in a statement.
Initially, 600,000 fans from abroad had been projected to attend as well, but organizers ruled out that possibility in March. They are set to decide soon if even local spectators would be allowed to watch the competitions in person. They already have reduced the number of officials and others expected to attend from overseas to about 78,000, not including athletes.
Japan's slow progress on vaccinations means restrictions on bars, restaurants and large gatherings are about its only means of preventing the spread of infections. Just over 3% of the island nation's population has been inoculated, the lowest among the 37 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to Bloomberg's vaccine tracker. That compares with more than 40% in the U.S. and in the U.K.
Japan began its immunization effort with health-care workers after the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE vaccine was approved in February. The companies also donated vaccine for use by Olympic athletes and delegations, though immunizations aren't required.
Progress at getting the virus under control in Japan has been hindered by medical regulations, with local safety trials required before vaccines could be approved.
Japan last week finally approved vaccines developed by Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca Plc, and the pace of inoculation has picked up to almost 500,000 doses administered daily. That's still behind the one million goal set by Suga.
Published : May 26, 2021
By : Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · David Wainer, Isabel Reynolds