Cassie Lord, a freelance writer based in Tsukuba, Japan, planned to spend Christmas in her native UK. She hasn’t been home for nearly three years and was hoping to spend some time with a family member who recently had heart surgery.
Now its plans are in disarray after Tokyo reinstated strict border controls in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
“When Japan stopped allowing visitors and students, I started to worry,” Lord said. ” I do not know if [the government] will suddenly revoke the changes, or suddenly make them worse… I don’t want to get stuck in the UK.
Ever since the World Health Organization called Omicron a “variant of concern,” countries around the world have invoked strict entry protocols. But faithful to the recent form, those of Japan are among the most radical and severe.
Since Monday, all non-resident foreigners have been banned, reversing a relaxation of restrictions for business travelers and foreign students weeks after it was introduced.
Authorities also briefly banned all inbound flight bookings before turning around on Thursday, fearing it could prevent Japanese nationals from returning home. Mandatory quarantine has been extended to 14 days for returning residents, regardless of their vaccination status.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida described the restrictions as “temporary and exceptional measures that we are taking for security reasons until there is clearer information on the Omicron variant”.
The harsh response was hailed by some pundits as Kishida’s most decisive move since taking office, offering the new leader a potential boost among a voter base not entirely convinced of his ability to lead.
But others see Japan retreating to “Sakoku” thought – reflecting the country’s policy of isolation between the 17th and 19th centuries. While other G7 countries rolled back restrictions throughout 2021 amid rising vaccination rates, Japan maintained tight border control despite fewer than 19,000 COVID-19 deaths and vaccinated more than 75% of its total population.
Border controls during the first waves of the virus drew criticism for singling out foreigners, while several cases arose of officials attributing – directly or indirectly – the spread of infections to non-natives.
The Itako Health Center in Ibaraki Prefecture gained notoriety among foreign residents earlier this year when it sent out a document urging the community to be aware that there were “many patients infected with the COVID who probably caught it from strangers”.
Last year, Taro Aso, a former prime minister, made headlines when he applauded the “mindo” or cultural values of the Japanese people for overcoming the first wave of the virus.
Japan’s border controls have been a source of anxiety for foreign residents and businesses throughout the pandemic.
“The most obvious effect [of the controls] is that foreign and domestic companies will not be able to bring in essential personnel,” Michael Mroczek, the head of Japan’s European Business Council, told Al Jazeera.
“This means positions may not be filled or senior management will have to run the business from outside Japan.”
Davide Rossi, co-founder of the education company Go! Go! Nihon, told Al Jazeera the mental toll has been particularly heavy for international students hoping to study in Japan.
“I constantly get messages from students who have lost two years of their lives because of the continued ban,” Rossi said. “They are unable to recover their tuition fees or lost time, and are often very depressed and without funds to study elsewhere.”
The WHO has called for “rational” measures to tackle the new variant, which some scientists say may be more transmissible or evade vaccines more easily than other strains, but criticized blanket travel bans.
Asked about Japan’s latest ban at a press conference on Wednesday, Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, said he found it “difficult to understand” from a scientific perspective.
“Does the virus read your passport? said Ryan. “Does the virus know your nationality or legal residence? »
Stephen Nagy, a visiting fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs think tank, told Al Jazeera he thought the restrictions were ‘cautious’ until there was more information on the variant. .
But he admitted that Tokyo’s reluctance to reopen had been exacerbated by its relative lack of exposure to the virus.
“With COVID rates so low at this point, it seems politically impossible not to take an ultra-conservative approach to border control for fear of spreading the new variant,” he said.
For people like Tania Sofia, a Portuguese national living in the UK who hopes to enter Japan with her Japanese fiancé, uncertainty is the only constant.
Current rules say only people with re-entry permits can travel to Japan, while the Foreign Ministry website is ‘unclear on visas’, she told Al Jazeera .
“[Once married] my goal is to obtain a short-term visa for special circumstances at the Japanese Embassy in London, so that I can return to Japan with him in January,” Sofia said. “But with this new ban, I don’t know if it will affect visa applications… Of course, we don’t want to spend time apart anymore; we want to start our life together.