TOKYO — More than a year ago, Sebastian Bressa finished his paperwork to become a language teacher in Tokyo and planned to quit his job in Sydney. His life has been in limbo ever since.
Japan has kept its door closed to most foreigners during the pandemic, and the 26-year-old Australian is among hundreds of thousands who have been refused entry to study, work or see family.
Japan has become one of the most difficult countries to access in the world and some compare it to the locked country, or “sakoku”, policy of the xenophobic warlords who ruled Japan from the 17th to the 19th century. Current border rules allow only Japanese nationals and permanent foreign residents, and have drawn anger from overseas students and scholars who say the measures are unfair, unscientific and force talented visitors to travel to other countries . Critics say the rules also hurt Japan’s international profile and national interest.
About half a million foreigners – including academics, researchers and others in highly skilled jobs and 150,000 foreign students – have been affected, according to various statistics.
“I think the hardest thing for me was that wakefulness,” Bressa said. He was unable to commit to long-term projects with his family, friends or even at work. “I can’t plan that far into the future, I just don’t know where I will be in the next month or two.”
Frustrated students gathered near Japanese diplomatic compounds around the world to protest.
In Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city, Laura Vieta stood outside the Japanese consulate last week, holding up a sign that read ‘Stop Japan’s travel ban’.
“I quit my job because I was thinking of going to Japan in September,” said Vieta, 25, who wants to study Japanese at a private school for six months or more. “As you can see, I’m still here.
Japan plans to keep border measures in place until the end of February as it faces a record rise in cases in Tokyo and other major cities. Makoto Shimoaraiso, a Cabinet official working on Japan’s COVID-19 response, said the situation was painful but he asked for patience, noting much higher infection levels overseas.
Japan recently decided to let nearly 400 students in, but many more, including those on scholarships sponsored by foreign governments, are still unable to enter.
A letter to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, signed by hundreds of Japanese scholars and experts and submitted last month as part of a petition, called for the relaxation of border controls to allow educators, students and scholars to continue their studies and work in Japan. He said many had already dropped out of school in Japan, choosing to focus elsewhere, such as South Korea.
“They become bridges between Japan and other societies. They are future policymakers, business leaders, and teachers. They are the foundation of the U.S.-Japan alliance and other international relationships that support national interests. fundamentals of Japan,” the letter reads. “The shutdown harms Japan’s national interests and international relations.”
Japan is not alone in imposing strict border controls, but the policy is drawing criticism from Kishida’s ruling party and the business community.
Taro Kono, an outspoken lawmaker who studied at Georgetown University and served as foreign and defense minister, urged the government to “reopen the country so that students and others awaiting ‘an entry can have a future perspective and make plans’.
Masakazu Tokura, head of Japan’s powerful Keidanren trade organization, recently said the border measures were “unrealistic” and disruptive to business. He called for a quick end to “the locked country situation”.
On Thursday, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, the European Business Council in Japan and the International Bankers Association of Japan, in a joint statement, said the entry ban “has imposed real economic and human costs and croissants”. They urged the government to “quickly adopt a science-based entry policy” to accept vaccinated business travellers, students, teachers and separated family members.
However, border controls enjoy broad public support. Many Japanese people tend to think that problems like the pandemic come from outside their island nation.
Tightening border controls quickly after overseas omicron outbreaks began may have been unavoidable, said Mitsuru Fukuda, professor of crisis management at Nihon University, but the decision to only exclude strangers seems to be aimed at rallying public support. With careful preventive measures, Japan could allow foreign visitors as many other countries do, he said.
“Crisis management is about protecting people’s daily lives and happiness, and people shouldn’t have to compromise their freedom and human rights in exchange for their lives,” Fukuda said.
Japan’s coronavirus cases plunged as delta-variant infections declined in the fall, and Kishida said closing the border to most foreign travelers in late November helped delay the latest spike in infections. . He argues that it is better to overreact than to do too little, too late.
He was likely taking a lesson from his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who stepped down after just a year in office, in part because of his administration’s perceived poor handling of the pandemic.
Japan has just started giving boosters, but only 3.5% of the population have received them, and the medical system has not been sufficiently prepared for the latest huge wave of cases, leaving many sick with COVID- 19 to isolate at home.
Border closures have not prevented omicron from entering US military bases, where Japan has no jurisdiction, including troops flying directly into the country without observing Japanese quarantine requirements. They weren’t tested for weeks, until Tokyo asked them to.
Clusters of cases among US troops quickly spread to nearby communities, including those in Okinawa, home to the majority of the 50,000 US troops in Japan, beginning in late December. Infections at US bases topped 6,000 last month.
On Wednesday, Japan reported nearly 95,000 new confirmed cases, a record, and Tokyo’s cases topped 20,000 for the first time. Some pandemic restrictions are now in effect across much of Japan, including Tokyo and other major cities like Osaka and Kyoto, for the first time since September.
Phillip Lipscy, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto in Canada who is part of the petition campaign, said he was refused entry despite his Japanese roots and dedication to studying Japan .
“I grew up in Japan. I am a native speaker of the language, my mother is Japanese and she lives in Tokyo. But under the current policy, I cannot enter Japan because of the color of my passport. “, Lipscy said in an online meeting.
With the outlook uncertain, many people are changing studies or careers, he said.
“These are fateful decisions with long-term consequences,” he said. “Closing the borders is depriving Japan of a generation of admirers, friends and allies.”
This story corrects the name of the Japanese university to Nihon University.
Associated Press reporters Chisato Tanaka in Tokyo, Hernán Muñoz in Barcelona, Spain, and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.