I returned to the U.K. on Feb. 16, 2020. My course at the University of Tokyo had finished for winter and I was raring to put economics and my masters aside for a couple months, and see family and friends back home. Coronavirus was still an anomaly on a cruise ship in Yokohama.
Life back in London was very normal: pubs were pouring pints, commuters were complaining and Boris was busy Brexiting. Riding the Piccadilly Line back from Heathrow Airport, I stared avidly at the exposed belly of the man sitting opposite me. I did not judge his lack of facemask.
Fast forward to the end of March and I was driving back from Scotland with three friends. At 5 p.m. the prime minister gave a wartime-esque broadcast in response to the rapidly escalating coronavirus situation. This was a pivotal moment in the U.K.’s experience of the pandemic. It was also when I knew that my return to Japan might not be so simple.
While Japan’s borders had not yet closed, amid the chaos of the U.K.’s pandemic response, I chose not to hop on my return flight at the end of March. I had also come down with a different illness, glandular fever, and thought it would be best to remain home to recuperate with the various comforts of my parents’ home.
Unable to return to Japan, I encountered several complications regarding my studies. The university had already made the decision that classes were to be held online via Zoom for the coming term. Yet, the matter of my scholarship, the timings of my classes and a whole host of other administrative issues still required attention.
In most of these instances there was no solution. I couldn’t sign for the scholarship payments meaning they weren’t paid out. The timings of classes were set in stone, regardless of time zone. The eight-hour time difference also made contacting the international student’s office a slow process. And as someone still learning the language, navigating the kanji of the news bulletins posted by the university became its own form of study.
I do, however, count myself lucky. I’m in my second year of studying for my masters degree and the majority of my work centers around my thesis, which is relatively flexible timewise. By comparison, first-year students in my course are swamped with core courses that have vast amounts of coursework and challenging content. Any inability to complete the course, or the need to take a leave of absence would delay graduation by a year.
April, May, June and July unfolded in persistent uncertainty. It’s a peculiar feeling having your life based 9,500 kilometers away from you. I had an internship I was trying to keep in contact with and a part-time job tutoring for two hours at 2 a.m. every Friday, all while my belongings did nothing but sit in a room in Bunkyo Ward.
Throughout, I kept a close eye on the Embassy of Japan website, and was finally able to come back to Japan when the borders were re-opened to foreign residents with a re-entry permit on Aug. 5. The return process was straightforward: One visit to the embassy, a coronavirus test and a near empty flight later, I was standing at a COVID-19 testing booth in Haneda Airport, being asked to imagine sucking a lemon so I could spit into a test tube.
I’m happy to be back in Japan. I’ve been able to return to my internship, work and life without the uncertainty that has dominated the past months. I enjoy my life here and have, in the past, tolerated the inconveniences imposed on foreign residents as they didn’t normally cause that much bother.
However, the government needs to recognize that there is a growing minority of “gaijin” who call Japan their home. For the well-being of these individuals, it should promote equal treatment for foreign residents, and shoulder the responsibility for the problems this unpleasant episode has caused them. The benefit for Japan would surely be a place of higher standing in the world, and a stronger economy.
Good luck to any other resident stranded abroad and safe journey when the time comes.
Angus Watson is a masters student at the University of Tokyo. Listen to his story in audio form on The Japan Times’ Deep Dive podcast from 7 p.m., Aug. 25.
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