TOKYO - Japan's glacial COVID-19 inoculation push is prompting some foreign residents to consider flying to other countries to get vaccinated, as the pandemic surges again with no shots in sight for everyday people.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga negotiated with the CEO of Pfizer Inc on Saturday to secure more vaccine doses, now expected to be enough for all residents by September. That's well after the scheduled start of the Tokyo Olympics and far behind the pace of most major economies.
Japan only started vaccinating its sizable elderly population this month and health experts say it may take till the winter or longer for most of the general populace to get access to the shots.
It's unclear how many foreigners are flying out of Japan to get shots, but it is a hot topic on social media and in business circles.
"I can confirm having heard of executives going to their home countries for vaccines," said Michael Mroczek, president of the European Business Council in Japan, adding the number doing so is limited because of the need to quarantine when travelling back to Japan.
Marc Wesseling is one long-term foreign resident who couldn't wait any longer. The co-founder of an ad agency in Tokyo flew this month to Singapore, where his company has an office, in part to get the shots so he could safely visit his parents in the Netherlands.
"I love the country and I wish them all the best," Wesseling said about Japan from his quarantine quarters in Singapore. "They are not the fastest. I think a lot of people are frustrated, especially when you want to have the Olympics and everything. Come on guys. Make it happen. The whole world is doing it. Why wait?"
Japan has vaccinated about 1% of its population, compared with 2.9% in South Korea, which started later, and at least 40% in both the United States and Britain, according to a Reuters tracker.
The Maldives will soon offer shots to visitors as part of a "visit, vaccinate, and vacation" campaign, the tourism minister of the popular Indian Ocean destination told CNBC last week.
Japan bars tourists from entering the country, and it's no easy matter for residents to get vaccinated overseas and come back. A two-dose regimen would take at least a couple weeks, often longer, and Japan operates a two-week quarantine for people coming into the country, even if they have been vaccinated.
"If you would like to go back to your home country for inoculation, that's fine with us," Japan's vaccine chief Taro Kono said on Friday. "Some countries have a higher rate of COVID-19, so you could consider which is safer for your health."
Representatives from Japan's foreign ministry and immigration service did not immediately respond with comment.
Japan's top health experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has entered a fourth wave.
Quasi-emergency measures have been imposed in 10 prefectures and the western metropolis of Osaka requested a full emergency declaration on Tuesday amid a rebound in cases driven by mutant variants of the virus. Tokyo may follow later in the week with a similar request, local media said.
Lauren Jubelt thought about going home to Florida to get the shots, but ultimately decided it wasn't worth the risk of perhaps getting trapped overseas if Japan shut its borders.
"I'm frustrated when I see my family in the U.S. get their vaccine," said Jubelt, who works in digital marketing in Osaka.
"We don't even have a solid date on when we can get it here and the cases are on the rise again."
(Reporting by Rocky Swift and Daniel Leussink in Tokyo; Editing by David Dolan and Neil Fullick)