Japan

Japan travel ban spells pain for foreigners and businesses amid coronavirus pandemic


Cassie Lord, a freelance writer living in Tsukuba, Japan, plans to spend Christmas in her native UK. She hasn’t been home for nearly three years, hoping to spend time with her family who recently underwent heart surgery.

Now her plans are in disarray after Tokyo reinstated strict border controls over the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

“I started worrying when Japan stopped allowing tourists and students,” Lord said. “I don’t know if (the government) will suddenly reverse the changes, or suddenly make things worse … I don’t want to be stuck in the UK.”

Since the World Health Organization named Omicron a “variant of concern,” countries around the world have initiated strict entry protocols. But as has been the case recently, Japan is one of the broadest and toughest.

All nonresident aliens have been banned from entering the country since Monday, reversing weeks after restrictions on business travelers and foreign students were eased.

Authorities also briefly banned all inbound flight bookings before turning around on Thursday, fearing it would prevent Japanese nationals from returning home. For returning residents, regardless of vaccination status, the mandatory quarantine period has been extended to 14 days.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida described the restrictions as “temporary, special measures we are taking for safety’s sake until we have clearer information about the Omicron variant.”

Some experts hailed the tough response as Kishida’s most decisive move since taking office, giving the new leader a potential boost among voters who do not fully trust his leadership.

Japan reports fewer than 19,000 COVID-19 deaths (File: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

But others think Japan is slipping back into a “lock-down” mentality — a reflection of the country’s isolationist policies from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Other G7 countries have lifted restrictions throughout 2021 as vaccination rates continue to rise, while Japan remains strictly vaccinated despite a COVID-19 death toll of fewer than 19,000 and more than 75% of its population vaccinated. control its borders.

Border controls in the early waves of the virus have drawn criticism for targeting foreigners, while there have been cases of officials blaming non-natives, either directly or indirectly, for the spread of the infection.

The Ibaraki Health Center in Ibaraki gained notoriety among foreign residents earlier this year when it issued a document urging the community to be aware that “many patients infected with the new coronavirus may have been infected from foreigners”.

Last year, former prime minister Taro Aso made headlines for praising 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 impact (of the controls) is that both foreign and domestic companies will not be able to bring in the necessary personnel,” Michael Mroczek, president of Japan’s European Business Council, told Al Jazeera.

“This means positions may not be filled, or top management will have to run the company outside of Japan.”

Davide Rossi, co-founder of education company Go! Go! Nihon told Al Jazeera that the emotional toll is especially severe for international students wishing to study in Japan.

“I keep getting messages from students who have lost two years of their lives because of the ongoing ban,” Rossi said. “They can’t recoup their tuition fees or lost time, and are often severely depressed and don’t have the funds to study elsewhere.”

“Political Impossibility”

The World Health Organization has called for “reasonable” measures to deal with the new variant, which some scientists fear may spread more easily or evade vaccines than others, but has criticized sweeping travel bans.

Asked about Japan’s latest ban at a news conference on Wednesday, Michael Ryan, head of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program, said he found it “difficult to understand” from a scientific perspective.

“Can a virus read your passport?” Ryan said. “Does the virus know your nationality or where you live legally?”

Stephen Nagy, a visiting fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs think tank, told Al Jazeera he thought the restrictions were “prudent” until more information on the variant became available.

But he acknowledged that Tokyo’s relatively low exposure to the virus has exacerbated its hesitation about reopening.

“With the rate of coronavirus infection so low at this stage, it seems politically impossible not to take an ultra-conservative approach to border control because of concerns about the spread of new viruses,” he said.

Uncertainty is a constant for people like Tania Sofia, a Portuguese living in the United Kingdom, hoping to enter Japan with her Japanese fiancé.

She told Al Jazeera that current rules state that only those with a re-entry permit can travel to Japan, and that the foreign ministry website is “not clear about visas”.

“My goal (after getting married) is to get a special circumstances short-term visa at the Japanese embassy in London so 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 any more time apart; we want to start our lives together.”



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