David Kvien, a 29-year-old Danish 3D artist from Tokyo, left Japan for Copenhagen on March 20 to attend to funeral arrangements for his father, who had passed away from a heart attack just a day before.
The flight he planned to take back to Japan coincided with the March 27 rollout of Japan’s ban on travelers from 18 European countries, including Denmark, in response to the rise of coronavirus infections mainly in Europe and the United States.
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted authorities worldwide to introduce entry restrictions on border traffic. But regulations in Japan have sparked a particularly strong reaction from its international community, as it is the only Group of Seven member denying entry to long-term and permanent residents and has set no clear criteria for their return.
The approach has left many foreign nationals in limbo — those who had headed overseas in earlier stages of the pandemic are now stuck abroad and face uncertainty about their careers and lives in Japan, whereas those who remain here fear that leaving the country would jeopardize their future as well.
Amid the restrictions, a decision about whether to cross the border due to a medical emergency in one’s immediate family can be agonizing. For Kvien, joining his grieving loved ones and paying tribute in person was an obvious choice. When he left, the travel ban was not yet imposed.
“Let’s say it had happened one week later, I would have (faced) a huge dilemma knowing that if I went (to Denmark), I couldn’t return,” said Kvien, who has a valid working visa in Japan but remains stuck in Copenhagen, on Thursday.
As the virus continued to spread, causing more than 4 million confirmed infections, some countries such as India have even banned their own citizens from returning home in hopes of limiting transmission. But most developed countries, while urging locals to refrain from nonessential travel, have exempted legal residents alongside citizens from their travel bans, albeit under mandatory quarantine.
In contrast, under Japan’s regulations imposed April 3, all foreign nationals, including those with permanent residence status and their non-Japanese spouses, and those who are married to Japanese nationals, will be subject to the measure if they try to return to Japan from any regions affected by the pandemic.
The list of countries covered by Japan’s entry ban has been expanded, bringing the total number to 100. In its most recent update, effective Saturday, Japan added 13 countries in Europe, Africa and South and Latin Americas, including Mexico, to the list.
“The rule says that those who (after April 3) leave for any of the banned regions will not be allowed to return in the foreseeable future,” said an official from the division of the Immigration Services Agency (ISA) overseeing arrival procedures, who didn’t wish to be named, on Thursday.
The official added that foreign residents with a valid long-term status, permanent residence holders and their spouses, and spouses of Japanese nationals who left Japan before April should be allowed re-entry.
The situation looks bleak for foreign residents with working visas or other visa statuses.
“We are asking (them) to wait for a while, given what the situation looks like within the country,” the immigration official said.
According to the ISA, all travelers are screened individually and may be allowed re-entry only under certain circumstances. But Japan has not specified the criteria travelers need to meet in order to be let in.
In contrast, Germany has set out conditions for entry such as the foreign national’s home or legal residence being in the country, or professional activities or urgent reasons such as medical treatment require them to enter. Travelers are also allowed to transit through Germany if no other travel connection is possible.
One reason Japan’s entry ban has raised eyebrows is the number of Japanese nationals who have traveled abroad and back to Japan during the pandemic and have been found to be infected with COVID-19. The ISA defends its approach, believing it is serving the purposes of Japan’s coronavirus strategy.
“We’re aware this regulation is causing a lot of inconvenience but we’re doing this to curb the spread of the virus,” the official stressed.
Taiwanese William Chin, 33, is a long-term resident of Japan with a working visa who has over the years traveled between Taipei and Tokyo every week to oversee his Taiwanese company while managing a hotel and real estate business in Japan. His wife is a permanent resident of Japan. Chin believes the lack of a time frame for the ending of entry restrictions may have a direct impact on business owners. Leaving for Taiwan may also have an impact on his business in Japan, posing a dilemma over whether to discontinue operations here and leave Japan, or quit his firm in Taipei.
“The problem is that … for this entry ban there is no deadline, so it’s very hard for us to cooperate and to plan,” he said.
Chin has taken a risk and booked a ticket to Taipei on a flight that left Japan on Tuesday. Otherwise, he would not be able to complete quarantine, which is mandatory and punishable under Taiwan’s law, before the annual shareholders meeting of the firm he chairs slated for June 11. His Taiwanese company is set to observe an election of its board members, and Chin worries that skipping the meeting would harm his reputation.
“I’m supposed to be managing the company in Taiwan and I’m always managing through video chats,” he added.
Chin said that before boarding the plane he was repeatedly warned by officials that he would not be able to return once he leaves Japan.
The situation has also sparked concerns among non-Japanese residents who left Japan before April 3 that their inability to return will affect their career opportunities and financial situation.
Jeff Mazziotta, an American resident from Tokyo with a working visa who left Japan on March 8 for a monthlong trip to South Africa to do nonprofit volunteer work related to wildlife conservation, is one of them. He was supposed to return as soon as South Africa eased its strict lockdown — starting from May, local governments there started to gradually ease restrictions allowing travel outside the country.
But the lack of direct flights connecting the two countries has crushed Mazziotta’s chances of re-entry, as immigration officers deem flights that connect in countries on the entry ban list equivalent to a temporary stay. South Africa is not listed among the 100 countries from which Japan denies entry, but all flights bound for Japan require travelers to transit in countries that are on the ban list.
Mazziotta is not the only one worrying their financial situation will worsen while abroad. Many non-Japanese residents have reached out to The Japan Times saying they are at risk of losing their jobs due to their absence, while they continue to be charged for accommodation and bills in Japan.
Some confusion has arisen over who is allowed to return. The Japan Times has received several dozen messages and has spoken with a number of long-term residents with permanent residence status or valid working visas, many of whom have voiced frustration over mixed messages from immigration officers and embassies they contacted to confirm arrangements.
For example, India is not on the entry ban list. But several Indian nationals trying to return to Japan have complained about the contradictory responses they have received from immigration officers in Japan, including some claiming that “all foreigners are banned from entering the country for the time being.”
While stuck abroad, foreign nationals may not be able to renew their Japanese visas, and some may lose their visa status if the situation remains as is. Although the ISA last week gave foreign nationals with periods of stay expiring in July a three-month extension, the extension only covers those present in Japan.
“But for those of us who happened to be out of the country before (April 2) and suddenly found ourselves stranded, to not allow us back is surprising as we didn’t purposefully break any travel restrictions or knowingly leave under restrictions,” Mazziotta said.
Kenshiro Michishita, a Tokyo-based attorney who has been investigating issues related to the entry ban, believes the strategy is discriminatory against foreign nationals and violates the rights of legal non-Japanese workers in Japan.
“The problem lies in drawing the line between Japanese and foreigners, many of whom are long-term residents who are paying taxes here, instead of separating short-term visitors from legal residents in Japan,” Michishita said. “Japan should either revise the regulation to allow legal residents in, or set clearer criteria for re-entry.”
Unsure if you could be prevented from re-entering Japan after leaving? Check our chart of countries that are currently on the re-entry ban list.