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The government has begun accepting applications from foreign nationals seeking entry and re-entry to Japan, allowing some workers and international students to come back into the country starting next week, the Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.

An official from the Foreign Ministry who is overseeing the affairs of non-Japanese confirmed Thursday that starting Wednesday, Japan is set to allow the return of all foreign nationals, including international students and workers, with valid visa statuses who had left Japan before the entry ban was imposed.

Foreign nationals regardless of their nationality can seek such permission and will be allowed to enter once they meet entry requirements.

The decision follows Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement at the government’s coronavirus task force meeting on July 22 that Japan will partially roll back entry restrictions on foreign nationals. Abe’s announcement came amid intensifying criticism and calls from Japan’s international community and business lobby groups to ease the entry restrictions, which have left thousands of its legal residents stranded abroad.

With the policy revision, Japan will start allowing in international students who were already enrolled and residents with working or other valid statuses. Those groups have been particularly affected by Japan’s strict entry ban on foreigners traveling, which was introduced on April 3 and updated through July 24 with an aim at curbing the spread of COVID-19 and now covers 146 countries and regions.

Those eligible for re-entry under the revised policy also include permanent residents, long-term resident visa holders, spouses and children of permanent residents, as well as spouses and children of Japanese nationals or permanent residents.

However, the revision does not cover those who left Japan after the imposition of the entry restrictions or are now planning to leave the country temporarily. According to the Immigration Services Agency (ISA), people considering such a move — regardless of their visa status — will still need permission to re-enter the country under special circumstances deemed as humanitarian grounds, such as a relative’s death or a health emergency.

The planned change in Japan’s border control policy will also be accompanied by stricter entry procedures.

A plane takes off at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on Sunday. | KYODO
A plane takes off at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on Sunday. | KYODO

To re-enter, non-Japanese travelers will be required to provide proof that within 72 hours before their flight they have undergone a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and must obtain documents confirming their re-entry permission from their local Japanese Embassy.

Other requirements — such as a 14-day observation of one’s health condition prior to their arrival, a PCR test and self-isolation upon arrival, and the use of a government-sponsored tracking app for smartphones — overlap with those for Japanese nationals.

From Sept. 1, stricter entry procedures will apply to all residents of Japan.

So far, permanent residents, long-term resident visa holders, spouses and children of Japanese nationals and of permanent residents who had left Japan before the entry ban was imposed have been allowed to return without submitting any documentation. The ISA official said that following the policy change, people with visa statuses in those categories will also be required to submit proof of a negative COVID-19 test completed within 72 hours before boarding their flight and documents confirming the resident’s re-entry permission.

“We’re fighting the coronavirus, so dividing people by their visa status becomes irrelevant,” an ISA official overseeing entry procedures said. He explained that the government’s goal is to re-admit foreign residents to Japan safely.

Simultaneously, the government on Wednesday also began fast-tracking applications from certain businesspeople under a new program, with either new visas or documentation confirming one’s permission to re-enter the country, the Foreign Ministry said.

For now, only Vietnamese and Thai nationals traveling from their respective countries will be the first to be granted such permission in the first stage of the phased plan to resume cross-border travel. The plan applies to people who fall under the category of engineering, humanities and international services; business managers; highly skilled professionals; specified skilled workers or technical intern trainees. People engaged in nursing care or with startup visas can also use this plan.

Those who will be allowed to enter Japan will need to use a direct flight.

Workers stand in a check-in area at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on June 28. | BLOOMBERG
Workers stand in a check-in area at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on June 28. | BLOOMBERG

In the face of growing expectations, the plan won’t be applied concurrently for all travelers from abroad and will be limited to selected regions where viral transmissions are relatively under control.

“(The government) needed to draw a line somewhere, as it would be impossible to allow all residents to re-enter the country at once,” the ISA official, who asked not to disclose his name, said. Japan’s limited testing capacity remains one of the main causes for the delays, said the official.

The program has two options: for short-term business travelers considered essential for a business or industry in Japan, and long-term expatriate staff.

To meet these requirements set forth in agreements between Japan and relevant countries, applicants must submit an itinerary for their stay there.

All applications need to be submitted to the local Japanese Embassy or consular office.

In the next stage, Japan is considering letting in travelers from other territories such as New Zealand, Australia, Cambodia, Singapore, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, Mongolia, Laos and Taiwan.

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