An American woman faces a choice: stay with her family in Japan or return to her home country indefinitely to be with her father after the sudden death of her mother. A Sri Lankan man and new father is forced to navigate the coronavirus pandemic without a job after being denied re-entry following a trip to his home country to care for his newborn baby. An Indian mother worries about the risks a missed vaccine shot may pose for her child after they weren’t permitted to return to Japan ahead of a scheduled appointment.

Japan is moving towards loosening its border control measures, but across the nation the entry ban on foreign nationals amid the pandemic is having a lasting impact on the lives of residents who have spent years and even decades making this country their home and has left them feeling trapped on either side of the border.

Japan, which has been struggling with its aging population, has in recent years made efforts to attract talent from abroad ― from students to highly skilled professionals ― through its self-professed omotenashi (spirit of hospitality).

But in its recent move to restrict entry for legal residents who have made sacrifices to build careers, seek higher education and start families in the country, Japan has essentially treated its non-Japanese residents as second-class individuals. That dangerous decision, especially now in a time of crisis, has begun to trigger negative attitudes to people who are hoping to settle in Japan and is consequently undercutting any existing positivity toward non-Japanese nationals who have long considered the country their home.

Over the past few months, I have been closely observing moves by the government that affect foreign nationals and have reported on the repercussions of those policies on the non-Japanese community. I have listened to dozens of stories from people desperately seeking the chance to see their sick loved ones or having to mourn the losses of their friends or family members from abroad.

The entry ban introduced on April 3 was supposed to be “a temporary measure aimed at curtailing the spread of viral transmissions in Japan” and has been since updated through July 24 to cover around 150 countries and regions.

But six months since the start of the outbreak, thousands of legal residents remain stranded abroad or trapped in locations in Japan without the right to return to their Japanese homes once they leave, as a result of the entry restrictions. On Aug. 5, Japan opened its borders to grant a one-time entry permission to students and working visa holders who had left the country before their destinations were added to the entry ban list, albeit under strict procedures, including the submission of the result of a PCR test carried out within 3 days before their flight to Japan. The nation has also started to let in people viewed as “needed to help revitalize Japan’s economy.”

While the signs at the airport look friendly enough, non-Japanese residents are finding it difficult, in some cases impossible, to return to their homes in Japan. | BLOOMBERG
While the signs at the airport look friendly enough, non-Japanese residents are finding it difficult, in some cases impossible, to return to their homes in Japan. | BLOOMBERG

The months-long isolation of legal foreign residents and the government’s persistence in ignoring their plight has triggered prejudices and encouraged an outpouring of hostility toward foreigners among some Japanese nationals, with growing calls on social media that demand the entry ban for all non-Japanese people remain in place for the time being.

In response to my reports, some people have commented and sent messages to me directly insinuating that Japanese nationals have higher hygiene standards, claiming there are “poor hygiene standards in many countries where there is no custom of washing hands.” Such claims echo those of gaffe-prone Finance Minister Taro Aso, who earlier this year associated the nation’s low mortality rate with Japan’s “higher cultural standards” compared to other nations.

“I can’t agree with the view that visa holders who reside in Japan on a long-term basis should be allowed to re-enter the country,” a Japanese man opined in one such message. He based his claim on sightings of people ignoring regulations that required Londoners to put on masks while traveling on the city’s subway system and baseless speculation that in some communities “foreigners don’t wash their hands.” The man didn’t acknowledge, however, that non-Japanese residents are more attuned to Japan’s customs than tourists and tend to adhere to them.

But the plight of Japan’s foreign community and calls for equal treatment have gone almost unnoticed in Japan with few reports on the situation in Japanese media, which have instead chosen to focus much of their coverage on the economy. Scarce coverage of the problems faced by the foreign community in Japanese-language media outlets may have helped reinforce the government’s stance and made many non-Japanese feel like outsiders that don’t belong here.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged the problems faced by foreign legal residents affected by the entry ban on July 22. Until then, neither Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga nor Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi had spoken about the importance of readmitting those with the legal right to reside in Japan back into the country as a pressing issue.

“Priority will likely be put on people who will help the Japanese economy recover,” Motegi said during his regular news conferences in May. He has since repeatedly stressed the economic benefits of resuming travel between Japan and other economies.

The foreign and justice ministries, which oversee the entry procedures as part of the country’s pandemic response, pointed to poor testing capacity at airports as one of the main reasons for strict restrictions on the entry of foreign nationals. Such excuses are unconvincing given that the non-Japanese community accounts for just 2 percent of the nation’s population.

Japanese nationals returning from abroad are only required to undergo PCR tests when they arrive and are requested to self-isolate for 14 days without any penalties for refusing to do so, a stark contrast to the treatment of foreign residents — even though since March, numerous reports have shown a number of Japanese nationals coming from abroad have tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival.

That second-class treatment has left many non-Japanese residents, particularly those who long ago built their lives here, asking themselves whether the government will ever acknowledge their contribution to the nation’s economy.

Japan is the sole Group of Seven member to bar even its permanent and long-term residents from returning to their homes and livelihoods amid the pandemic. Other developed economies, in contrast, have ensured equal treatment to both citizens and long-term foreign residents.

The Japanese government has yet to make clear when it will allow its non-Japanese residents to travel overseas without the risk of being unable to return. Thousands of people waiting overseas for new visas to enter Japan are also unable to plan for their futures.

As of late August thousands of people are still unable to return to Japan, often left without access to coronavirus tests reserved in their countries for COVID-19 patients or conducted in different forms than PCR tests in Japan.

While the government has been keen to push domestic tourism with its Go To Travel campaign, it has prevented many non-Japanese residents from returning to their homes in the country. | KYODO
While the government has been keen to push domestic tourism with its Go To Travel campaign, it has prevented many non-Japanese residents from returning to their homes in the country. | KYODO

Annamaria Macurikova, a 27-year-old Slovakian student at a university in Tokyo, is trying to make arrangements to return to Japan, where she spent six years studying, leading her to consider settling down here. But for her, the past few months of clashes with the government, with bureaucracy winning over humanity, have been filled with painful memories and sleepless nights that have left a bad taste in her mouth, causing her to change her mind about settling in Japan.

“‘You could return if one of your relatives dies,’” she quoted a Justice ministry official as saying when she called to check on her situation a few months ago. She said those words still echo through her head and cut her to her heart when she lost her grandmother a few weeks ago.

“It hurt me tremendously and I will never forget that,” Macurikova wrote in a message to The Japan Times in fluent Japanese.

She left Japan on March 3 to spend her spring break with her relatives, knowing it could be the last chance to see some of her family members, who were sick and unfit to make the long trip to Japan. She has since been repeatedly asking government officials if she can return, but to no avail. For the officials, neither sick relatives in her home country nor her years in the country, along with a Japanese fiance waiting for her in Japan, were a sufficient reason to grant her permission to return to her home.

“It’s not that because of this experience I started to hate Japan and its culture. But I just can’t spend the rest of my life in a country that treats its legal residents just like random tourists,” she said.

Some 90,000 people who left the country before Japan imposed the ban on their destinations have been denied entry to Japan for months, struggling to cover both their bills in Japan and additional expenses during their stay abroad.

The entry ban has not only affected non-Japanese residents but the operation of business, educational and other institutions relying on them. Last Monday business lobby groups from Europe, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. joined in calls on the Japanese government to lift the restrictions, stressing the policy “can only discourage foreign nationals, and the companies they work for, from investing in Japan.”

Keeping the divide between Japan’s foreign residents and Japanese nationals may deepen racial divides and non-Japanese residents’ sense of alienation from the society they have long considered themselves part of.

In the months to come, Japan will face the challenge of regaining the shaken trust of the non-Japanese community undercut by the government’s inaction towards addressing growing criticism of unequal treatment.

Any pandemic requires planning and preparedness and, in this crisis, Japan has failed to guarantee its foreign residents a place in society by denying especially those who live here on a long-term basis the basic right to access their livelihoods.

Japan’s entry ban will likely have a long-lasting impact on the entire foreign community, pushing some of its members to leave the country they had invested their entire lives in — a decision that could wipe out their decades of input and impact.

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