Kaushik Kumar really loves Japan and has wanted to live here long-term for a while now, even though he knew he’d always be “treated like a foreigner.”
“The positives are: good infrastructure, good health care and the people are lovely,” says the 25-year-old from Bangalore, India, when asked why he chose Japan over other countries. “Overall, the quality of life here is better than in India.”
Kumar has been stranded in Bangalore since March, however, awaiting permission from Japanese authorities to return home to Tokyo. He says he now seems to understand what being “treated like a foreigner” can really mean.
“I didn’t even have health insurance in India,” he says via a WhatsApp call, adding that he has since had to buy insurance there. “My entire life is in Japan and it is treating me and many like me, who pay taxes and social insurance, like average tourists. That is very depressing.”
Kumar is one of thousands of Indian residents of Japan who are still stuck in their homeland due to an entry ban on foreign arrivals, which was first introduced in April to protect the country from the COVID-19.
He had been living in Japan since last year but was visiting his family in March when India closed its own borders to try to shield itself from the coronavirus. Days before the country opened up again on June 1, Japan added India to its list of countries and regions affected by the entry ban.
Japan wasn’t alone in closing its borders. Many nations took similar actions as the extremely contagious virus made its way around the world. However, unlike the other G7 nations, Japan’s policy applied to permanent and long-term residents — though not Japanese nationals coming from those same areas, who were requested to self-quarantine for two weeks upon their return to Japan.
The government has said that some foreign nationals could re-enter the country on humanitarian grounds but it gave no clear definition of the criteria until June 12.
“I wasn’t able to go back and wondered how many like me were stranded in India,” Kumar says. “I started looking for more information on the Indian community groups and that’s how I got connected to hundreds of others like me.”
Kumar and another stranded Indian resident of Japan, 32-year-old IT engineer Tanmyi Mhasawade, started Facebook and WhatsApp groups for other Indians to share their stories and get information on what was going on at the border. According to Mhasawade, they have been contacted by more than 1,000 Indians: around 45 percent of whom have jobs in Japan, 45 percent of whom are dependents and 10 percent of whom are on student visas.
The groups are filled with stories of people having to pay rent and residency taxes in Japan while stuck outside the country, and workers who’ve had their salaries cut based on the reasoning that they’re working remotely.
“I was supposed to join my new company on April 1, but I was able to start my job remotely last month. My company has been supportive,” Kumar says. “But there are those who are being told by their companies that they might lose their jobs if they do not return soon.”
With some people being allowed back into Japan, there is still confusion over how the Justice Ministry would like them to navigate the process.
As of last month, applicants first had to call Japanese immigration to get verbal permission, phone the Japanese Embassy in India and tell them the name of the person they spoke to at immigration, send documentation to the embassy and then the application was theoretically approved. Finally, proof of approval had to be sent to the airlines in order to purchase tickets. Last week, the process changed once again. Therefore, since things are in a constant state of flux, it is always better to check www.mofa.go.jp or www.indembassy-tokyo.gov.in before making any plans.
Members of the WhatsApp group say the embassy stopped taking applications on July 7 as the flights scheduled for that month were already full. As of this article’s publication, a flight between India (from Delhi) and Japan has been confirmed for Aug. 19, and airlines are reportedly trying to schedule more.
Yogendra “Yogi” Puranik, an Edogawa Ward councilor of Indian descent, helped submit a petition in June to the government ministries and embassies involved in the process on behalf of the stranded Indians, asking them to help those who were in difficult circumstances and did not necessarily fit the relaxed entry criteria.
“I believe there are around 3,000 people who are stranded in India, out of which only around some hundreds have been able to return,” Yogi says, though, since he spoke with The Japan Times, around 500 people have been allowed back in. “The most difficult situation is for the students and (the) working class because (the Justice Ministry) has not given permission to people in those categories. It has only given permission to people on so-called humanitarian grounds.”
On Aug. 5, Japan began to let people back into the country, however, that’s still only if you are fortunate enough to get a flight.
“All those foreigners who have their livelihoods in Japan should be allowed to enter,” Yogi says. “Failing to let them would discourage them from investing their lives in Japan any further. The recent change in policy toward allowing in foreign residents suggests things are now changing, but episodes like these will leave a scar.”
Everyone has a story
Will the re-entry ban leave a lasting impression on expats and immigrants? Anecdotes are increasingly tossed back and forth in the Indian community — one woman is allowed back in, but is unable to get a visa for her baby; another was unable to make it to her husband’s deathbed — but one of the most striking stories belongs to Shikha.
Shikha and her family have been living in Japan since 2015. Last year, her 18-year-old daughter, Esha, was accepted to university in Canada. With her semester ending in April, Esha was set to come back to Japan (both Shikha and Esha are pseudonyms as the family is worried about repercussions from immigration services).
“I understood that because of COVID-19 the situation was complicated, so I wanted to check with immigration whether my daughter would be allowed re-entry into Japan or not,” Shikha explains. “They told me that if she had left Japan before April 2 then she could come back. I made three different calls on three different days: The first time I spoke in English, the second and third time in Japanese to be sure that there was no miscommunication. After getting confirmation from them, I booked the ticket.”
However, when Esha’s plane touched down at Narita Airport on May 2, the teen was told she could not enter the country and would have to return to Canada.
She was handed over to Japan Airlines, whose next flight to Canada was scheduled for May 9, and kept in a room at the airport used by JAL officials.
“My husband asked for permission to give her home-cooked food,” Shikha says, noting Esha is vegetarian. “They allowed it, so my husband would carry all three meals from our home to the airport and they would pass them on to her.”
Shikha contacted the Indian Embassy to seek advice, and all parties involved kept a dialogue going with JAL. This included coming up with an alternative plan in case Esha, an Indian citizen, was denied entry into Canada. In addition to that conversation, Shikha began to worry about her daughter’s mental and physical state.
“Every morning when my husband handed over the food to the JAL officials, he told them how he was concerned about her hygiene because she had no provisions for showering,” Shikha says. “So, they came up with another option. They said that immigration had permitted them to move Esha to a nearby hotel that would cost ¥70,000 per day.” The amount included a ¥50,000 fee that would be paid to a security company to guard her. The arrangement would last until May 9.
On May 4, Shikha contacted councilor Yogi and that evening, after a long day of negotiating, she was informed that her daughter would be allowed into Japan after all.
“She is 18 and still too young to have to handle all this, that is the main reason I checked with immigration three times,” Shikha says. “The question is about being transparent. In Japan, the information is not transparent. Everything is unclear.”
Shikha also points out that her daughter is no different from a Japanese student who returns from overseas, and she could have just quarantined at home like they do.
“When Japanese nationals are allowed in even though they traveled from the same country, in the same aircraft as my daughter, what is stopping them from letting Esha enter the country when she has a valid visa?” Shikha asks. “If it is fear of the virus, then everyone should be considered the same way. The virus doesn’t see nationality.”
Yogi stresses that cases like Esha’s are why the government can’t issue blanket bans.
“The overall guideline will never cover all the permutations and combinations, which is why immigration has been given the right to offer special permission (to enter the country),” he says. “Still, in these adverse times a sense of humanity is needed. They could’ve done this without all the drama and trauma involved.”
Megha Wadhwa, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute of Comparative Culture, Sophia University. Her research focuses on the Indian community in Japan.