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Matt has lived in Japan for more than 20 years and is currently undergoing treatment for cancer in Tokyo, which requires him to visit a hospital from time to time. In the middle of a pandemic, however, hospitals aren’t always the safest of places.

Matt, who has asked to be referred to by his given name for privacy reasons related to his health situation, says he’d feel less anxious overall if he could receive a COVID-19 vaccination, but doubts the opportunity will come within the next few months. That’s not him being pessimistic, his surgeon told him as much directly.

“Don’t even think you’re going to get anything before September,” Matt recalls the doctor saying.

He’s not the only one on edge. A slow start to Japan’s vaccine rollout coupled with supply insecurity has sparked fears among many non-Japanese residents that the government’s on-again, off-again emergency measures may not provide them with enough protection against the coronavirus. It’s a situation that has prompted Matt to seek out a vaccination appointment in Canada, where his family lives.

He’s not alone. A growing number of foreign passport holders in Japan are heading back to their home countries or former places of residence to get their COVID-19 jabs, something they see as bringing them one step closer to a renewed sense of normalcy. Japan, they believe, is a few steps behind.

Japan began inoculating health care workers in February, expanding the program to older residents in April. But the general public won’t be inoculated until summer at the earliest, with those in remote towns and villages getting their turns long after that. As of now, it is unclear when the vaccination program will be completed.

Health experts are skeptical that the vaccination rollout plan will proceed as planned, and many foreign residents, too, are unconvinced their turns will come anytime soon. Yet, they’re seeing family and friends on social media receiving their vaccinations, and so, in order to reclaim a sense of control over their health and safety, they’re booking trips abroad.

A viral gamble: Taro Kono, Japan's regulatory reform and vaccine minister, listens to a question from a journalist from behind a transparent screen during a news conference in February. Kono has pointed out that traveling during third and fourth waves of the pandemic may be riskier than waiting for your shot in Japan. | BLOOMBERG
A viral gamble: Taro Kono, Japan’s regulatory reform and vaccine minister, listens to a question from a journalist from behind a transparent screen during a news conference in February. Kono has pointed out that traveling during third and fourth waves of the pandemic may be riskier than waiting for your shot in Japan. | BLOOMBERG

Place your bets

Kat Callahan, a 37-year-old civics teacher and union organizer living in Chiba, is one of those who has decided she can’t wait for Japan to catch up on vaccinations. Now in her 13th year here, she booked a flight back to Albuquerque, New Mexico, because of “the shoddy response (to the pandemic) by the Japanese government” and the fact that “New Mexico is the best state in the union for vaccination rates right now.”

Currently, only 1.73 per 100 people in Japan had received their shots as of April 20. That’s 28,220 people aged 65 or older out of about 36 million, in addition to 2.16 million health care workers. Compare that to the United States, where vaccines are now available for all adults regardless of their insurance coverage.

It’s not always the best approach to compare countries — the United States is in a much more precarious situation when it comes to the coronavirus, which makes the vaccination rollout there more urgent. Still, amid a global pandemic, it’s important that every nation gets its residents vaccinated or else the virus will continue to mutate and cause problems.

Callahan has therefore decided to take matters into her own hands, in order to protect herself. Already, she is careful to sanitize and wear the proper protective gear when in public. She believes the government’s reluctance to adopt the kinds of stricter measures seen in other countries may have sent a message to the Japanese public that the pandemic is no more serious than a prolonged cold and flu season. This has her worried that people have become complacent about anti-coronavirus measures.

“On public transport, I always see a good number of people without masks or wearing masks incorrectly, usually below the nose,” she says. “I believe that the Japanese public tends to view the seriousness of a situation based on the seriousness of the response from the government. The government has not treated this seriously.”

With people booking vaccine vacations, the nation’s vaccine czar, Taro Kono, warned that such trips abroad amid third and fourth waves of COVID-19 could be a gamble.

“Some countries have a higher rate of coronavirus infections, so you may want to consider which risk is lower,” he said on April 16.

Still, a number of foreign residents are betting on their home countries, especially if they have underlying health conditions or are undergoing medical treatment.

Gabriela, a 41-year-old Brazilian Japanese woman who asked to use a pseudonym for reasons related to her job as a consultant, is a cancer survivor who has lost friends and family to COVID-19 back in Brazil. Still, she’ll hop on the next plane to Rio de Janeiro if it means getting the vaccine sooner.

“The slow rollout of the vaccination plan here is the main reason,” she says. “They had enough time to organize it properly and yet they didn’t. I have asthma, so I want to protect myself as much as possible.”

Brazil currently has the second-highest death toll from the pandemic after the United States. Despite its own slowly unfolding vaccination campaign, Gabriela still believes she is more likely to get a jab there than in Japan as she believes the Japanese government is too focused on staging the Olympics in July.

“Sure, Brazil doesn’t have it all under control and (Brazilian President Jair) Bolsonaro is much worse than Kono,” she admits. “But my mother has already been vaccinated and I’m sure I would get a vaccination there sooner even at their current pace, especially because they are producing vaccines in Brazil. … We don’t know when we’re getting our shots here.”

Steve Novosel, a geophysicist in his 40s who has lived in Japan for 14 years, received the second of his vaccine doses in Texas a few weeks ago. He says he had reservations about traveling to the United States due to the virus situation there but, as he has an underlying medical condition, he was relieved to discover that he met the criteria for an early vaccination.

“I checked for every possible legal method of getting a vaccine when I arrived and managed to get an appointment within a week,” Novosel says. “I knew if I did not push to get vaccinated, then it would be a long time before I would have the chance in Japan. So I thought making the effort was worth it.”

In process: A health care worker administers a dose of the Sinovac Biotech CoronaVac COVID-19 vaccine to a person at a community shelter in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 22. The Brazilian government is adding 1.6 billion reals ($286 million) in funding to purchase vaccines, medicines and expand intensive care centers around the country. | BLOOMBERG
In process: A health care worker administers a dose of the Sinovac Biotech CoronaVac COVID-19 vaccine to a person at a community shelter in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 22. The Brazilian government is adding 1.6 billion reals ($286 million) in funding to purchase vaccines, medicines and expand intensive care centers around the country. | BLOOMBERG

A much-needed family reunion

Border restrictions that the Japanese government put in place last year meant non-Japanese residents — even those with established residency — were unable to re-enter the country throughout much of 2020. For many in this group, that has meant not being able to see their families in person for an entire year. Although travel curbs remain in place, non-citizens with established residency are now permitted to cross the border. The idea of a long-awaited family reunion provides further temptation to risk the trip abroad to get a vaccination.

Lisa Sone, 55, is planning to travel to the United States in June to visit her father.

“He lives alone and he misses me,” she says via email, adding that she was planning to stay inside with her father throughout the entire trip. “The only outing I have planned is to bring flowers to a remote place in the desert where we scattered my mother’s ashes a few years ago.”

However, Sone says she’ll plan a second outing if she is able to get a vaccination while there. Even a chance to get one dose of the two-shot Pfizer vaccine “would be far better than no shot at all,” she says, adding that getting her jabs ahead of her Japanese husband and three grown children will definitely make her feel a bit guilty.

The guidelines on going home

If you decide to “risk it,” as vaccine chief Kono puts it, there are a few things you should know. First, current travel restrictions allow all residents to cross the border as long as they have valid residency status and permission to re-enter the country. You must also return with proof you have tested negative for COVID-19 under guidelines set out by the government.

Despite having received a vaccination overseas, under current quarantine rules all returnees are required to observe a 14-day period of self-isolation — or more rigorous restrictions depending on which region you return from. Failure to follow such rules could result in “naming and shaming” penalties that may see you lose your job or residency status. Japan does not recognize so-called vaccine passports, despite such practices gaining traction in Europe and elsewhere.

Frederick Gundlach, a 56-year-old attorney and tax professional who often travels to the United States for work, was about to complete his 14-day quarantine period in Japan on Wednesday when he managed to score another trip to get his second shot next week. When he returns, he will then be subjected to yet another 14-day quarantine.

“(It’s) worth it, though, because it will probably open up the ability to just fly back stateside this year without the COVID tests,” says Gundlach, who is originally from New Jersey and has lived in Japan for around 10 years.

He adds, however, that after landing at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, he felt “like it was suggested I was bringing in the plague, when, in fact, I had two negative COVID tests and the early benefits of the first Pfizer shot in me already.

“I realize that the vaccine shot is not fool-proof (there is still a possibility you could get and transmit COVID-19),” he says via email, “but the risks become a lot less. I want to do my part to make the pandemic end.”

As the list of countries rushing national immunization campaigns continues to grow, countries like Israel, where more than 50% of the population has received their second jab, have proven that vaccines could send infection rates plummeting, raising hopes for economic recovery.

Japan most likely won’t join the race to become the world’s vaccine leader, but calls are growing for it to recognize vaccine passports to allow people to enter the country more freely. Gundlach doesn’t think the government has considered the idea that it may soon be the case that travelers coming into Japan will be less of a risk in transmitting COVID-19 than those already living here.

“The current government made such an issue of emphasizing that COVID-19 came from abroad, basically insinuating that the Japanese should see foreigners as ‘vectors’ of the disease,” Gundlach says. “Soon, it will be the other way around.”

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