Over the past week, a number of countries have finally started easing restrictions on international travellers. But even as coronavirus cases drop sharply in Japan, the border remains firmly closed. It has been almost entirely closed to newcomers since the start of the pandemic. And it has a serious impact on people’s lives and businesses.
Japan’s pandemic border restrictions have put life in limbo for tens of thousands of people around the world. Many students and workers have waited up to a year and a half to enter the country — with no end in sight.
“Life on Hold”
The banning of Japanese borders was a huge test of patience for 30-year-old Terrence Chida. The American software engineer landed a job in Tokyo just as the Japanese government closed the doors to newcomers.
“You start to feel like you’re forgotten and neglected and it’s almost like they don’t care,” says Chida, who had dreams of living in Japan.
After a software engineering outsourcing company in Tokyo offered him a job, he planned to move in June last year, but has been stuck ever since. It’s been over a year.
“If there’s one thing I could ask the government to do, it’s just give a timeline,” Chida said.
He says the Japanese government has been secretive about when workers like him will be allowed to obtain visas and enter the country. He desperately needs those responsible to offer more clarity.
“Even if it’s an estimate or something like what the number of COVID cases should be, what the vaccination rate should be,” says Chida.
The ban on new entries has also cut off the flow of international students. Japan is the only G7 member that still bans the vast majority of them from entering the country.
According to the Immigration Services Agency, nearly 122,000 international students were able to enter Japan in 2019. But in the first seven months of this year, only around 7,000 students were allowed entry.
Canadian master’s student Jeremy Tsai enrolled in a Japanese university in the spring, but was unable to enter Japan. The entry ban forced him to take his classes online from his parents’ home in Canada on Japan time from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.
“Having to adjust my sleep schedule because of this restriction has affected my relationship with my family and friends,” Tsai says. “I also worked part-time at first, but I had to quit because I couldn’t stand it.”
He says he struggled to see the government allow certain groups to enter Japan in what officials call “special exceptional circumstances.” Tsai was particularly frustrated to see Japan allowing tens of thousands of people into the country for the Olympics, while it continued to ban students.
“We want to study the Japanese language, culture, history and many other things,” says Tsai. “And yet singers, DJs and Olympic athletes are more important than us. I couldn’t figure out the reason behind it.
The continued entry ban is pushing some people to abandon Japan, including 22-year-old Joana Gubau from Spain.
“I feel sorry for myself sometimes, thinking I might be in Tokyo right now,” says Gubau, who has been studying Korean at a university in South Korea since June.
Before the pandemic, Gubau dreamed of moving to Japan to learn Japanese and fashion. But with the government providing no timeframe for allowing international students to enter the country, she decided she couldn’t wait any longer.
She’s probably not alone. A survey by a group of six associations representing Japanese language schools suggests that at least 6,000 people have now canceled their study plans here. Morishita Akiko, who helped lead the survey, says the current trend is causing serious concern.
“We are getting more and more cancellations day by day as the situation remains uncertain,” Morishita says.
An advocacy group called “Education Is Not Tourism” held a social media photo campaign on Oct. 15 to raise awareness of the issue both outside and inside Japan.
Watch the video: 03:54
Professor Kondo Sachihiko, who heads the Japan Association for the Education of International Students, said he also feared the entry ban could cause long-term damage to Japan. He is particularly concerned about the ability to attract people with high-level knowledge and skills.
“It is clear that the population of Japan is no longer increasing,” says Kondo. “The birth rate will continue to decline. It is absolutely necessary to acquire excellent human resources outside the country and make them support the country together, or at least make them become fans of Japan and support the Japanese economy and international relations.
Kondo adds that if the ban continues, many language schools, where most international students enroll for the first time, will go bankrupt without students to pay tuition. He says this means the country will be forced to rebuild its system to attract and accept international students after the pandemic ends. He describes the situation as “devastating” for Japan.
“Pressure on the government”
The Japanese government now faces significant pressure to open up to students and workers, or at least to clarify when it will. Groups representing Japanese language schools, universities and businesses that rely on foreign employees have created petitions or are now lobbying politicians.
On September 28, then-Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide answered a reporter’s question about the government’s plans for people wanting to move to Japan.
“Regarding the entry of foreign students to Japan, we will positively consider this matter depending on the progress of vaccination in Japan and the infection status in Japan and abroad,” Suga said. during a press conference.
The border ban will be an issue facing Japan’s new Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. Ministers from the G7 countries met on September 30 to discuss the reopening of international travel and agreed on a set of seven fundamental principles for the safe and sustainable reopening of borders.
Meanwhile, in response to a request for information from NHK World Japan, Japanese immigration officials did not provide a timeline or details on when the restrictions will end or ease.
Daily infection cases drop to the lowest level in more than a year and Japan’s vaccination rate continues to rise, with nearly 65% of the population having received two shots. Experts say the government must act quickly to open up, before more people give up plans to study or work in Japan.