TOKYO — Auto executives traveling to Japan might want to reconsider, if the business trip can wait. In the age of the rampaging COVID-19 omicron variant, Japan's gauntlet of quarantine controls is a mind-boggling mix between the Toyota Production System and "Squid Game."
I recently returned to Tokyo from a work and family trip to Detroit. What awaited us at the capital's Haneda airport was as amazing for its overengineered, hyperefficient logistics as it was exasperating in its unyielding robotic bureaucracy. In a word: The ordeal was uniquely Japanese.
It entailed four hours of navigating checkpoints, installing tracking software on smartphones, taking yet another PCR test, signing a 14-day quarantine pledge and enduring immigration scrutiny unlike anything I've seen in my decade living here under "permanent residence" status. After finally being admitted to Japan, we were then hustled onto a rendition-like dark-of-night bus trip to a government-appointed hotel for the first three days of isolation.
All entrants to Japan must isolate for 14 days — usually at home. But those coming from COVID-19 hot spots, such as the U.S., are forced to initially quarantine at a hotel for between three and 14 days, depending on how bad the outbreak is at origin of travel. Michigan gets three days. Some states — including Florida, Texas, California and New York — get hit with a six-day hotel lockup.
At our hotel in central Tokyo, my two teenage daughters and I hugged farewell before being stowed away in separate rooms for the duration. Like a minimum-security prison, we can't leave the rooms. Three meals a day — Japanese bento lunchboxes and green tea — are left at the door.
Also not unlike prison: The government picks up the tab. At least we had that going for us.
Japan's hard-line guidelines, anathema to the relaxed approach taken in the U.S., are more akin to even stricter measures enforced in neighboring China. That country was in the news lately for locking down the entire city of Xian, a metropolis of some 13 million, as part of a zero-tolerance containment policy, amid reports of disrupted food and medical services there.
Japan's measures are part of this island nation's efforts to halt omicron's arrival at the water's edge by screening entrants to the country. As omicron advances across much of the world, Japan's ardent defense has slowed its spread here.
With the arrival of omicron, the U.S. is logging record levels of more than 1 million new cases a day. In Japan, by contrast, the daily tally recently exceeded 2,000 for the first time in months.
Keeping a lid on domestic transmission — aided by compulsive mask-wearing — has helped Japan avoid the lengthy factory shutdowns that have hammered other economies during the pandemic.
So Japan finds the quarantine bother a small price to pay — especially when the burden falls mostly on foreigners and those Japanese with the temerity to travel during a pandemic. Japanese automakers, for the most part, are curtailing international travel — such as to CES in Las Vegas — during the omicron outbreak.
When new arrivals land, they are herded through a maze of quarantine stations worthy of Ellis Island — all set up in unused airport gates, face masks mandatory.
After an initial screening, we received oversized laminated green tags to affix to our arms by rubber bands. These marked us as bound for the government quarantine hotels. Looking like Paddington with his yellow "look after this bear" label, we then moved on to the PCR test. There, more than 20 phone booth-like cubicles ringed the workspace, all filled with people spitting saliva into test tubes. We dropped off our samples and hoped for the best.
Next, we got our tracking apps installed. Per Ministry of Health decree, we must report our health condition on this app every morning for 14 days. Additionally, every day we receive random video calls to confirm that we are properly quarantining and not out roaming the streets.
Sometimes there is a real human caller, other times it is a robocall. When the app rings, you need to show your face with the room's background and let the app register your GPS coordinates. Throughout the day the app peppers us with other prompts for further confirmation. (This is on top of another, separate online health report we must fill out daily for the hotel.)