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Starting Tuesday, Japan is set to lift its entry restrictions on foreign residents, allowing those who left before the strict coronavirus curbs were imposed to return, and those planning to leave temporarily to proceed without fear of being locked out.

But the announcement last Friday sparked concerns that even legal residents may face deportation due to unclear and strict requirements that differ from those applied to residents with Japanese passports.

The revision came amid intensifying claims of unequal treatment from the international community and business groups, who say the restrictions have left hundreds of thousands of people unable to resume their livelihoods or travel to work or study.

Following the most recent update on Sunday, Japan’s entry restrictions now cover 159 countries and regions. Until August, foreign nationals could only return if they had permission from immigration authorities and were leaving under special circumstances, such as pressing family issues or a health emergency.

Starting Tuesday, everyone with valid resident statuses regardless of visa type will be allowed to re-enter Japan. Officials from the Foreign Ministry and the Justice Ministry who announced the changes Friday also said residents will no longer need special circumstances to do so either.

Even so, entry procedures will differ for those abroad who are seeking re-entry and residents in Japan who are planning to leave.

Non-Japanese who left Japan by the end of August will need to contact the nearest Japanese Embassy or diplomatic office to acquire a letter confirming they have valid visas and are allowed to return. Those who left as early as April 3 or after travel restrictions were imposed on their destinations, and were denied the right to return as their circumstances did not qualify for exceptional treatment, will also be able to obtain such certificates.

People who are planning to leave Japan after Sept.1 are required to give the Immigration Services Agency detailed plans on their itinerary and will be allowed to travel as soon as they receive a document confirming the request has been accepted. They will not need to apply for additional documents from an embassy or consular office.

The ISA has warned, however, that they may suspend document issuance for applicants seeking re-entry if testing capacity at airports is insufficient to handle all foreign travelers. Japan was planning to boost its testing capacity to 10,000 per day at the major international airports ー Haneda, Narita and Kansai.

The ISA is set to disclose an email address where requests for re-entry can be sent on its website at noon on Tuesday. Travelers will need to input their residence card number, nationality, and other details as stated on their passport, as well as details of the trip, including destination, planned departure and re-entry dates and information on which airports the traveler will use.

Residents planning to leave between Tuesday and Sunday are requested to share the date of their return during the departure procedure at the airport.

However, starting from September, all non-Japanese, including permanent residents, will be required to undergo specific tests for COVID-19 in accordance with Japan’s guidelines prior to their leaving for Japan. The government has warned that not complying may result in denied entry.

A traveler undergoes a polymerase chain reaction swab test at the COVID-19 test center run by Centogene NV at Frankfurt Airport in Germany. | BLOOMBERG
A traveler undergoes a polymerase chain reaction swab test at the COVID-19 test center run by Centogene NV at Frankfurt Airport in Germany. | BLOOMBERG

The Immigration Services Agency has claimed the strict conditions are aimed at limiting the spread of the virus in Japan. In contrast, however, Japanese nationals coming from abroad are not required to undergo pre-entry tests for COVID-19.

Upon arrival, non-Japanese will be sent to the quarantine station at the airport to undergo tests for COVID-19. They will be asked to submit the permission documents obtained from the immigration agency or embassy, along with proof they took any of several listed tests for the coronavirus before coming to Japan.

Only negative results for molecular diagnostic tests conducted via nasopharyngeal swab or saliva samples using the real time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction method (RT-PCR), loop-mediated isothermal amplification method (LAMP) or an antigen test using the chemiluminescence enzyme immunoassay (CLEIA) method will be recognized as valid. Such tests need to be conducted within 72 hours prior to departure and documents confirming the procedure need to be filled out entirely in English and need to be signed by a doctor from the medical institution where the test was conducted or have the institution’s stamp. The officials suggest using the certification form for COVID-19 tests, which can be found on the justice ministry’s website.

Additionally, all returnees are required to self-isolate for 14 days and are not allowed to use public transportation during that time. Only short-term business travelers using new criteria set up just for them under bilateral agreements can commute between the place where they are staying and their workplace during the 14-day period after arrival. But they as well are not allowed to use public transportation during that time.

According to the ISA, between Aug. 5 and Aug. 23, when Japan began to allow people stranded abroad to re-enter, 70 people were denied entry, including those who had tested negative for COVID-19 in the country they departed from but whose tests were conducted using different methods than those recognized as valid by immigration authorities.

During the same period Japan granted permission to enter to 15,745 foreign nationals.

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