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When Anne-Sophie Mpacko recently learned that Japan’s borders had started opening, she was excited to begin her studies at Keio University, where she had been accepted as a doctoral student in clinical psychology.

Her plans to start studies on campus in the spring were derailed when the novel coronavirus began to spread around the globe. In the meantime, she has been in France, waiting to make the trip. Due to the long drawn-out uncertainty, “this has been the most stressful experience of my life,” she says.

While looking at the guidelines for entering Japan, however, she came across an unwelcome requirement: a certification of having tested negative for COVID-19 from a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that had been “conducted within 72 hours of departure time.”

Mpacko discovered that in France, “many laboratories refuse to do tests for non-urgent cases such as traveling.” After a lot of hunting, though, she has discovered what appears to be the sole provider of a test for travelers that boasts a sufficiently speedy result.

The catch? There’s a concern that the provider might be overwhelmed with other travelers seeking the same service, which could put the timing of Mpacko’s departure in jeopardy. After all, she has to take the test and get the results back within three days, a situation that has left her “pretty anxious” about the possibility of not getting the result quickly enough to catch her flight.

Mpacko is one of many non-Japanese individuals currently struggling with the bureaucratic demands of entering Japan. The country’s strict border controls, in place since the spring to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, have made it difficult — and sometimes impossible — for even permanent residents to return home. Many have not been able to honor job contracts, or begin or resume studies at Japanese schools.

Restrictions were eased in September and at the beginning of October, making it possible for non-Japanese residents — current and new — to come to Japan. In order to do so, however, they need to tackle a huge amount of paperwork in order to gain entry.

The pre-departure PCR test (another one is administered upon arrival, which both non-Japanese and Japanese are required to take) in particular is causing a significant amount of difficulties for people overseas.

In some countries, it is near impossible to meet Japanese requirements for pre-departure tests. There are many reasons for this: Some places won’t test you if you don’t have COVID-19 symptoms; the type of test they commonly use is not one accepted by Japan; the labs can’t process results quickly enough; results are delivered by email rather than in the format specified by Japan; doctors are not available or are unwilling to sign the paperwork as required by Japan; or results are not available in English.

Cameron Switzer, a 31-year resident of Japan, returned to his native Canada in September following the death of his mother. After settling her affairs, he is now ready to return to Japan, but his attempts thus far have been stymied by the pre-departure test requirement.

Testing grounds: A quarantine officer at Narita airport conducts a PCR test. | KYODO
Testing grounds: A quarantine officer at Narita airport conducts a PCR test. | KYODO

“Rapid testing is just not developed here,” Switzer says from Alberta. Currently, the wait time in the province is being quoted as three to six days, and he has already taken three PCR tests — none of which has come back quickly enough.

“The current 72-hour PCR test result is not realistic, nor fair,” he says. “I just want to go home. My life is in Japan.”

Switzer is particularly annoyed that Japanese citizens are not required to submit the same pre-departure test.

“I guess only foreigners can catch coronavirus,” he says, with a note of sarcasm.

Social media is filled with similar testimonies as people share their difficulties getting into Japan due to the pre-departure test requirement. British executive coach Paula Sugawara says it was hard to find a clinic outside of London that could meet the requirements, and environmental engineering student Annamaria Macurikova has been searching unsuccessfully for a lab in her native Slovakia that can administer the PCR test within the 72-hour time frame.

Daisuke Tsuji, an administrative scrivener who is an expert in legal documentation and specializes in visa issues, notes that the basis for Japan’s choice of a 72-hour time frame in which to complete the test is unclear.

Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist at the Kobe University Graduate School of Medicine, says “SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t care about nationality.”

Iwata says the rational thing would be to require the same conditions of re-entry for everyone — whether they are Japanese or not, adding that the only real effect of requiring a pre-departure PCR test followed by one upon arrival is “creating the appearance of doing something.”

Pledge gives pause

Another stumbling block that is impacting new residents coming to Japan for work or school is an intimidating pledge that organizations must sign when an employee or student — and their spouse or other dependents — comes into the country on a new visa. It requires the organization to “state concretely the reason why it is truly urgent and vitally necessary” for the individual to enter the country.

The pledge outlines a complicated regimen of quarantine and the recording of health data that new entrants must do, with their employers on the hook for it being completed properly. At the end of this pledge, the company must acknowledge that if the pledge is deemed to have been broken — in other words, if some problem happens — the company will be held responsible. As a result, they could be publicly shamed and find it hard to bring people to Japan in the future.

It’s natural for anything so complex, unfamiliar and weighty to make an organization nervous. As a result, many firms and schools are hesitating to sign the form and are asking employees and students to wait even longer before coming to Japan to start their new lives here.

The situation has been particularly challenging for those who are seeking to bring dependent spouses to Japan. Many companies and universities are hesitating or outright refusing to sign for employees and students’ spouses, who they may never have met and don’t have any direct connection to.

This was the situation that Tomasz and Valeriya Fajst faced when they asked Valeriya’s school to sign the pledge on behalf of her husband. Tomasz left Japan in the spring to return to his native Poland to update his visa in accordance with government guidelines. The pandemic hit and Tomasz was stuck in Poland, while Valeriya continued her linguistics studies at Tokyo University. School officials told Valeriya that they needed to discuss whether or not they could sign a document on behalf of Tomasz, who is Valeriya’s dependent but has no link to the school itself.

Last week, the Fajsts received some good news. Although the university still hasn’t gotten back to them, through a separate route they were able to get Tomasz approved to enter Japan on a humanitarian basis.

Not all couples are so lucky. Many have taken to Facebook groups to look for tips and solutions in dealing with bureaucratic procedures. One group, Return to Japan Support Group, conducted a quick poll recently and found that of those wanting to bring family members to Japan as dependents, 30% had their company or university refuse to sign the pledge, while another 30% said they were still waiting for a decision.

Bureaucratic complexity

In a culture where avoiding mistakes is paramount, and with a matter as risky as the coronavirus, the government has significant incentives to show that it’s doing everything possible to prevent problems.

The innumerable bureaucratic hoops that non-Japanese and their sponsoring organizations are being asked to jump through may be causing stress and resentment, but from the perspective of a government that is fond of detailed paperwork, they look normal and prudent.

Amane Sawatari is an author and consultant specializing in organizational effectiveness. He believes that the complex requirements for non-Japanese entrants are “business-as-usual for the Japanese bureaucracy.”

While he understands the need for being careful when allowing people to come into the country during a pandemic, he says that the way they are going about it is problematic.

Sawatari feels that, by not recognizing the difficulty individuals without COVID-19 symptoms have in getting PCR tests overseas, and by requiring the test results be a paper-based process rather than digital, Japan is “imposing its self-centered local standards on people from other countries, and lacking a global perspective or sensibility.”

A common thread among many of the people interviewed for this story was that information and decisions varied widely depending on which embassy or consulate — or even which member of staff — the applicant is dealing with. Sawatari says that dependence on the arbitrary decisions of individual officers is particularly problematic, and runs the risk of increasing the number of non-Japanese who are unhappy with Japan.

“Japan needs to be looking at this issue from a brand management perspective,” Sawatari says. “There is global survey data out there already that shows Japan as being near the bottom in appeal to international employees. Starting out with a working style that hasn’t been reformed yet, and layering on a complicated and Japan-only ‘Galapagos-style’ system and procedures for entering the country, it’s a mistake to think you are going to get non-Japanese to come here to work.”

Sawatari would like to see the government avoid getting stuck on petty procedural items that only serve to increase the number of people who have negative feelings toward the country. Instead, he would like to see a focus on trying to create more fans of Japan who want to work here.

Tsuji, the immigration specialist, believes that, unfortunately, there is little incentive for the government to change the way it’s doing things.

“From the viewpoint of the government, somehow things seem to be going well with the current approach,” he says, and, indeed, there have not been any cases in which coronavirus clusters have been attributed to non-Japanese coming in from overseas.

Tsuji feels that, as a result, the government is likely to stick with its current policies, so we shouldn’t expect to see changes anytime soon. That’s bad news for everyone struggling to cope with the bureaucratic burdens, and will give pause to any non-Japanese currently in Japan who are considering traveling to their home countries.

Japan is a country that has wielded its soft power to great effect in an attempt to get people from overseas to visit, buy its products, study at its universities and stay to help supplement its shrinking workforce. If bureaucratic nitpicking winds up tarnishing its cultural shine, Japan may find that it ends up alienating those who should be its biggest fans.

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