Japan’s travel ban spells anguish for foreigners, businesses | Coronavirus pandemic

Cassie Lord, a freelance writer living in Tsukuba, Japan, plans to spend Christmas in her native England. She has not been home for nearly three years and hopes to spend time with a family member who recently underwent heart surgery.

Now, her plans are thrown into disarray after Tokyo reinstated strict border controls in response to the emergence of a variant of the Omicron coronavirus.

“I started to worry when Japan stopped allowing tourists and students to enter,” Rhodes said. “I don’t know if [the government] Will suddenly undo the changes, or suddenly make them 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 invoked strict entry protocols. But in its most recent form, Japan is the most widespread and severe.

All non-resident foreigners have been banned since Monday, reversing the easing of restrictions on business travelers and foreign students weeks after they were implemented.

Authorities also briefly banned all inbound flight bookings before a U-turn on Thursday, amid concerns it would prevent Japanese nationals from returning home. Mandatory quarantine for returning residents has been extended to 14 days, with or without vaccination.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida described the restrictions as “temporary, special measures we have taken to be safe until more clear information about the Omicron variant is available”.

The hard-line response, hailed by some pundits as Kishida’s most decisive move since taking office, provides a potential boost to a new leader whose electorate base does not fully trust his leadership.

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

But others argue that Japan is falling back into “Sakoku” thinking – a reflection of the country’s policy of isolation between the 17th and 19th centuries. Other G7 countries have lifted restrictions throughout 2021 due to rising vaccination rates, keeping Japan tightly under control despite having reported fewer than 19,000 COVID-19 deaths and vaccinated more than 75% of its population. boundary.

In the early days of the virus outbreak, border controls drew criticism for excluding foreigners, while there were several cases of officials spreading infection directly or indirectly to non-natives.

Earlier this year, Ibaraki’s Board Health Center gained notoriety among foreign residents when it issued a document urging the community to be aware that “many COVID-19 patients may have contracted it from foreigners.”

Last year, former Prime Minister Taro Aso made headlines for praising the “ideology” or cultural values ​​of the Japanese people’s victory over 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] It is that neither foreign nor domestic companies can bring in the necessary personnel,” Michael Mrochek, head of Japan’s European Business Council, told Al Jazeera.

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

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

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

“Politically impossible”

The WHO has called for “reasonable” measures to deal with the new variant, which some scientists fear could spread more easily or evade vaccines than other strains, but criticized the blanket travel ban.

Asked at a news conference on Wednesday about Japan’s latest ban, Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said he found it “hard to understand” from a scientific point of view.

“Will the virus read your passport?” Ryan said. “Does the virus know your nationality or your legal residence?”

Stephen Nagy, a visiting fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs think tank, told Al Jazeera he believes the restrictions are “prudent” until more information is available about the variant.

But he conceded that Tokyo’s hesitation to reopen was exacerbated by its relatively little exposure to the virus.

“With the incidence of Covid-19 so low at this stage, it seems politically impossible not to take an ultra-conservative approach to border control so as not to spread new variants,” he said.

For someone like Tania Sofia, a Portuguese living in the UK, who hopes to enter Japan with her Japanese fiancé, the uncertainty is constant.

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

“[Once married] My goal is to get a special situation short-term visa at the Japanese embassy in London so I can return to Japan with him in January,” Sophia said. “But with this new ban, I don’t know if it will affect visa applications. …of course, we don’t want to be apart anymore; we want to start our lives together. “

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