While much of the western world has moved on from COVID-19 health measures, it’s a different universe in Japan where the country has taken a much slower approach to relaxing many of these measures.
With Japan now open for tourism, you might be wondering about exactly what the situation is like right now as a visiting tourist, especially as you may have heard matters are a bit different in the country. We’ll cover everything you need to know about pandemic related public health rules and measures you might encounter during your Japan trip in 2023.
This article is based on my first-hand experience visiting Japan twice so far since the pandemic — first in September 2022 under self-guided tour rules, and again in December 2022 after the borders were fully opened. I’ll be visiting again in May 2023 and this article will be updated with the latest on the situation then.
Face Masks Are Expected Indoors Everywhere
Let’s get the matter you likely care about most out of the way — face masks. Masks are easily the most controversial public health measure and the situation in Japan is complicated right now.
Currently in Japan, it’s expected that you wear a face mask or covering in all indoor spaces. This can include airports, shopping in stores, taking the train, and exploring tourist attractions.
Note that we’re careful to use the term ‘expected’ because Japan does not technically have a government mask mandate as many western countries have had at various points during the pandemic. There is no governmental or health body requiring that you wear a face mask.
However, it wouldn’t be accurate to refer to face masks while indoors as ‘optional’ either. It’s a firm social expectation in the country right now that you wear a face mask while indoors at almost all times.
Compliance with this social etiquette is 95% or higher when indoors, and you will absolutely stand out in a negative sense within public indoor spaces if you are not wearing one. Additionally, businesses can of course choose to enforce their own requirement of wearing a mask indoors as well, despite the lack of a government mandate, and many do so.
One such prominent example of such businesses is the Tokyo Disney Resort and Universal Studios Japan theme parks, which have written rules requiring the wearing of a face mask indoors. Employees at the park will enforce this guideline and ask you to wear a mask if they spot you without one. Other examples of tourist attractions with similar enforcement are TeamLabs Planets and various temples or shrines.
In conclusion, tourists considering or planning a visit to Japan should consider it a requirement to wear a face mask most of the time when indoors at this time. Like it or not, you are a guest in someone else’s home, and this expectation should be respected by visitors.
If this is an issue for you and wearing a face mask indoors is a deal breaker, I recommend waiting to visit Japan at a later time when the public has become more relaxed on the matter. It’s very possible the situation will be markedly different by the end of 2023 as the Japanese public eases out of pandemic social behaviors.
Many People Wear Masks Outdoors, But You Don’t Need To
Much like indoor spaces, many Japanese currently wear a face mask while outdoors on streets and other areas as well. It’s not anywhere near 100% compliance like you’ll find indoors, and the number is slowly easing with time, but it’s still very prevalent.
Official Japanese government guidelines do specifically support the choice to not wear a face mask when outdoors as long as you are not speaking loudly in a crowd, but most of the Japanese public have chosen to ignore this guidance.
Whether you wear a face mask in outdoor situations is generally your own choice to make, but those wishing to ‘fit in’ and match the social culture as much as possible may wish to wear one outdoors.
During my trips in September 2022 and December 2022, I chose not to wear a face mask outdoors in almost all situations and never felt that I was causing any trouble. As mentioned earlier, the official Japanese government guidelines support the choice to not wear a face mask when outdoors in most circumstances, so it’s not breaking ‘the rules’ necessarily.
However, it is simply reality that many Japanese do choose to wear a face mask outdoors and you will stand out for not doing so. In other words, if you wish to fit in as much as possible and follow local culture to an absolute tee, then you may wish to wear a mask often when outdoors as well. It’s ultimately your choice though.
One notable exception is the Universal Studios Japan theme park, which is currently notorious for having a quite strictly enforced mask rule even while outdoors. I was asked to put my face mask back on while taking a distanced selfie with a costumed Toad character at Super Nintendo World, if that gives you any indication of the strictness!
Temperature Checks Are Common
A common staple in the western world during the first year of the pandemic still remains at large within Japan in 2023 — the checking of your temperature when entering establishments like restaurants or tourist attractions.
The scientific rationale behind these temperature checks is dubious at best, but that’s besides the point. Regardless of justification, you should expect to be often asked to check your temperature as a formality before entering a sit down restaurant and sometimes when entering an attraction if you visit Japan right now.
As a side note in regard to temperature checks being a formality, I witnessed a hotel breakfast temperature checkers ‘go off’ multiple times on guests without a care in the world from staff. So if you’re worried about your naturally high body temperature causing issues…. it probably won’t matter.
Plexiglass Barriers Between Your Dining Companion Sometimes
Japan still loves plexiglass barriers at restaurants, but they’ve taken it to another level beyond what most western countries embraced with barriers designed to protect you within a table.
No, I don’t mean plexiglass barriers between separate tables, but barriers actually installed in the middle of a table designed to separate the people dining at a single table. This was by far the biggest COVID-related culture shock on my trips, and truly baffling.
Sometimes the barriers could be pushed or moved aside with relative ease to create an open environment for you and your dining companion, but at other times they were essentially stuck with no option other than dealing with the awkwardness. In fact, I watched one couple at a fine dining establishment share their food by passing the plate with a reach off the table and around the barrier!
Once again, the major theme parks at Tokyo Disney Resort and Universal Studios Japan are common examples of this practice, but we encountered it at other restaurants throughout Japan too.
Most Buffets Require Wearing Gloves
Many buffet restaurants at both hotels and theme parks in Japan currently require patrons to put on single-use gloves at the start of the buffet line.
In my humble opinion, this is probably for the best and a wise practice I wouldn’t mind seeing imported overseas, but it’s still out of place for many westerners and worth mentioning to avoid surprises.
There’s No Social Distancing
Despite all of the other COVID-19 measures discussed above, Japan has certainly said goodbye to any sort of social distancing in terms of extra spacing when lining up for something or crowding within venues. We never encountered anything of the sort during our trips in Fall 2022.
I Still Love Visiting Japan Regardless
You might read this article and come away with the impression that a trip to Japan isn’t worth the trouble right now, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Japan is an absolutely amazing country to visit and incredible experience that I continually recommend to everyone I know. In fact, I’m already planning to return soon in May 2023!
COVID measures, such as face masks, just need to be added to the already expansive list of cultural differences one should be prepared for prior to their visit. Japan is a unique destination in so many ways — both good and bad.
What’s Your Experience?
Have you visited Japan in 2022 or 2023 since the borders were opened to tourism? Let us know in the comments below what your personal experience with pandemic measures were like, such as face masks, to help keep others informed considering a visit!
1 thought on “What Face Masks In Japan Are Like In Early 2023 (My Tourist Experience)”
It’s actually really frustrating people’s ignorance on what a guest is, and what a customer or visitor is. We really shouldn’t give the Japanese any ideas that we are guests in their home, because we are not! When they accept such rhetoric, mask harassment becomes the norm. And there is no logic in being mask harassed while you are paying their salaries.
As much as I love Japan this has to stop before ever visiting the country again!