Immigration authorities have resumed processing of visa applications, in a move expected to speed up entry clearance for foreign nationals with applications stuck in pending. But the change will only benefit a limited number of visa applicants, as the nation’s strict travel restrictions continue to keep foreign nationals waiting.
Last Friday, the Immigration Services Agency (ISA) resumed issuing certificates of eligibility for resident status that are delivered to foreign nationals before they travel to Japan and used in exchange for newly issued visas. The procedure had been halted since the coronavirus outbreak, and had remained in that state alongside Japan’s gradually imposed, strict entry restrictions on foreign travelers.
The new measure will enable foreign nationals who were set to move to and begin lives in Japan, for work or study, to obtain their visas once they land.
“Until now, applicants had to wait until Japan relaxed its entry restrictions for procedures to resume,” said Hitoshi Kobayashi, deputy director of ISA’s Residency Management Division. “But following Friday’s change, with certificates at hand, they won’t face further delays due to their applications not having been dealt with.”
Given that 627,085 people applied for such certificates in 2018, according to ISA’s most recent data, slower screenings could result in drastic delays.
In a telephone conversation on Tuesday, Kobayashi explained that validity of the papers has been significantly extended for those with certificates issued between October and January 2021, and for new applicants. Now they can exchange the documents upon arrival in Japan within six months from the moment entry restrictions are lifted.
The agency had halted the procedures earlier this year, as the pandemic continued to unfold worldwide, because in most cases such documents would have lost validity by the time Japan opened its borders. Normally, such certificates are valid for three months.
However, the distribution of pending documents does not mean that applicants will automatically be allowed to enter Japan. At present, foreign nationals need to meet strict criteria for exemption from the nation’s entry restrictions — either for humanitarian reasons or if they qualify for an exemption given to business travelers from selected countries.
Another official supervising entry procedures at the ISA, who requested that his name not be disclosed, said the distribution of the certificates should help with procedures for some foreign nationals seeking entry clearance on humanitarian grounds.
“We take into consideration the situation of families separated (due to the entry restrictions) as special circumstances, and allow foreign nationals to join their spouses in Japan,” the official said.
Pending visa applications apparently served as obstacles in handling requests for entry from newly married couples.
The official added that couples with other visa statuses who have been unable to join their families in Japan are also covered by the exemption from the ban for humanitarian reasons, but may need to go through a more complex procedure than spousal visa holders to receive permission to enter the nation.
In fact, Friday’s change comes amid a flood of requests from international couples relating to spouses of Japanese nationals or permanent residents that have been stuck abroad, awaiting their visas, according to the officials.
On April 3, Japan banned most foreign travelers from regions severely affected by the pandemic from entry. The strict restrictions — which have since been gradually updated, with the latest addition coming into force Wednesday — now cover travelers from 129 countries and regions. The ban has triggered harsh criticism and concerns from among Japan’s international community, business lobby groups and business owners in the nation as it has left many foreign nationals, including those with valid or pending working visas, stuck abroad.
Japan has yet to determine when it will allow all residents, including those with valid student and working visas, to return.
But as the country is set to gradually ease restrictions for business travelers, albeit under a daily quota of 250 visitors from selected countries, the new system related to distribution of certificates of eligibility is also expected to speed up entry procedures for those travelers.
Kobayashi said that those who could benefit from the system are specialists in industries more advanced outside the nation, such as in windmill or boring technology, and Japanese businesses in need of such expertise.
The ISA will have the new system in place until April 30, 2021, which means that if Japan lifts its entry restriction in February, travelers from countries subject to relaxed controls will be able to use the certificates until the end of April.
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