TOKYO (AP) — Next week, Japan will ease tough border controls against coronaviruses that have been criticized as xenophobic and damaging to the economy. The new rules, however, bring only a slight improvement: 5,000 new entrants per day, down from the current 3,500, and a far cry from the estimated 64,000 per day who entered for long-term visits before the pandemic.
The 5,000 daily arrivals also include returning Japanese nationals, meaning hundreds of thousands of foreigners will still struggle to enter.
It is estimated that half a million international students, teachers, workers accredited as technical trainees and business travelers have been locked out and have been waiting to enter for nearly two years. Under the policy which comes into effect on March 1, it would take several more months of patience before everyone could enter.
“It’s still better than nothing,” said Jommy Kwok, who missed almost all of his first year of graduate courses in atmospheric science at Hokkaido University.
Kwok was the only one in her class who had to take classes and do research online while staying in Hong Kong. His 20 classmates returned to campus when coronavirus infections slowed rapidly late last year, before the more recent omicron wave. “I’ve been pretty left behind,” she said in an online interview.
She hopes to arrive in Japan before the start of the new school year in April and take more classes to catch up as much as possible before her expected graduation next year. She can also pursue doctoral studies in Japan.
But she has competition. About 150,000 foreign students and scholars are waiting to enter.
Japan has banned almost all entries by non-resident foreigners since the start of the pandemic. The country announced a relaxation in November, but quickly reversed the decision after the omicron variant appeared elsewhere in the world.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan would consider further relaxation of border controls based on a scientific assessment of the omicron variant, infection levels inside and outside Japan and measures quarantine from other countries.
The long wait has already hurt many people, both mentally and financially. Some have changed the direction of their studies, their careers and their life plans.
Critics have likened Japan’s strict and protracted border measures to the “sakoku” lockdown policy of xenophobic warlords who ruled the country from the 17th to 19th centuries. Some say it harms Japan’s national interests by excluding skilled foreigners who could bring valuable ideas, business and labor to the country.
“I want to contribute to society if I decide to stay” in Japan, Kwok said.
Japanese and overseas business groups have also protested to the government, saying the border closure has delayed investment, trade deals, product development and shipments.
According to a recent survey of German companies in Japan by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 73 out of 100 respondents said that they saw their project and their volume of business endangered because of the entry ban, while 23 said they had already lost cases worth more than $113 million.
The absence of foreign students meant a loss of tuition for universities and language schools, while agriculture, construction, nursing and convenience stores that depended on foreign workers faced severe shortages of staff, according to Takahide Kiuchi, executive economist at Nomura Research Institute.
Their return below the 5,000 daily entry cap could contribute about 1.6 trillion yen ($14 billion) in annual economic gain, or 0.2% of Japan’s GDP, in the near term, Kiuchi said.
Under the restrictions, Japan might also have missed out on future trading partners, as foreign companies that see border measures as a risk factor might avoid doing business or investing here, he said.
As COVID-19 infections slow, the daily death toll topped 270 on Tuesday, a record since the start of the pandemic, according to the health ministry. Japan has recorded more than 22,000 deaths, significantly fewer than many countries.
But most of Japan is still under virus-related restrictions as infections continue to strain the medical system, which tends to be easily overwhelmed as COVID-19 treatment is limited to public hospitals or large hospitals. .
Experts generally agree that Japan’s rapid tightening of its border in late November was good crisis management, but that keeping the gates closed as omicron infections spread in Japan made no sense.
“At this point, the damage is greater than the benefit,” said Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Akio Mimura, who called for further relaxation of the daily entry cap. Mimura, noting broad public support for tough border measures, urged the government to raise awareness that the policy harms certain parts of society.
Business leaders are also calling for a resumption of tourism at some point to revive the badly affected industry. Outbound tourism fell more than 90% in 2020 from a year earlier, nearly wiping out the pre-pandemic inbound tourism market of around 4 trillion yen ($34 billion).
Education Minister Shinsuke Suematsu said last week that Japan was trying to allow as many foreign students as possible before the April start of the new academic year, but “it will still take a long time before everything the world can enter”.
The new border measures will not help Stefano Piras, who is in Italy and has not been able to visit his Japanese fiancée for over a year.
The couple met at the end of 2019 in London, just before the pandemic. After about a year, they decided to get married, and Piras returned to Italy to prepare for his move to Japan.
Piras wanted to meet his parents and get married in Japan, but to do so he must obtain a tourist visa, which is impossible under current border policy. Now he thinks getting a marriage certificate and a wife’s visa is the only way to find her in Japan.
“You are born, you get married and you have a family. It’s one of the three most important things in your life,” Piras said in an online interview from Sardinia. He laments that he has to burden his fiancée with paperwork in Japan, instead of working on the marriage together.
Having lived in Osaka for two years as a Japanese language student, Piras was aware of Japan’s tendency to be wary of foreigners, but “it was a shock that they were still so closed off. … It’s like saying the Japanese are fine but we (foreigners) are not fine. We bring disease and the Japanese are the pure ones.
Yet Piras has not lost his love of Japanese culture and people. He calls Japan “my second home”.
But he has to go home first.
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