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Soon after Japan saw the first case of a new strain of the coronavirus, the government tightened border control measures for travelers from abroad to prevent further transmissions into the country.

In contrast to the initial stages of the pandemic, Japan has drawn a clear line between nonresident and resident foreign nationals, allowing all non-Japanese with residential permits to re-enter under similar conditions to those imposed on Japanese nationals.

But the announcement triggered a sense of deja vu for many non-Japanese residents, who until this fall remained deprived of access to their livelihoods and separated from families in or outside Japan.

Earlier this year, Japan made headlines with one of the strictest sets of entry restrictions among developed nations, banning arrivals for leisure travel entirely while restricting entry for non-Japanese residents seeking to return.

The justification cited for the decision to close the borders, which was aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, was the continuously rising numbers of COVID-19 cases worldwide.

Inequity between the treatment of Japanese and non-Japanese residents, including those with established residency status and decadeslong careers here, brought back to the surface long-standing frustrations over apparent struggles with multiculturalism in the nation, stirring debate on the status of foreign residents here and the extent of Japan’s preparedness for an influx of foreign workers that had been anticipated before the pandemic struck.

As questions linger over the government’s intentions behind the controversial rules, records and reports from behind the scenes of Japan’s fight against the pandemic have begun to emerge.

They highlight the limits of the nation’s immigration strategy, with decisions apparently made ad hoc amid chaos, and reveal the insecure status of foreign nationals in Japan and underlying discriminatory attitudes within society toward immigrants and expatriates.

Airport testing

“The government will continue to make decisions and implement necessary measures without hesitation, as our highest priority is to protect Japanese citizens’ lives and health,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in late January, as he first announced restrictions on arrivals from overseas.

Draconian regulations weren’t initially part of the plan. When it first confronted the outbreak in China, the government was focused on evacuating its citizens stranded in the affected region.

A passenger arriving from the Netherlands at Narita International Airport on Monday holds her mobile phone over a device to submit answers to a questionnaire on health conditions and travel history. | KYODO
A passenger arriving from the Netherlands at Narita International Airport on Monday holds her mobile phone over a device to submit answers to a questionnaire on health conditions and travel history. | KYODO

The first set of travel restrictions Abe introduced — in early February, after the World Health Organization declared the virus a global public health emergency — applied only to foreign nationals who had visited China’s Hubei and Zhejiang provinces, which were at the time the regions most severely affected by the growing outbreak.

Industry experts who monitored the government’s response to the crisis point out that Japan was hesitant about closing its borders.

“Introducing an entry ban has long been considered a prohibited strategy, out of concern that such a move could be considered discriminatory,” said Yoshiyuki Sagara, a member of the Asia Pacific Initiative, a Tokyo-based global think tank that examined government countermeasures to the pandemic, in a recent telephone interview. “Europe was the first to introduce such measures, while Japan watched and followed suit.”

Japan is not the only country that has imposed border measures aimed at curtailing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the country. In earlier stages of the pandemic, some nations even went as far as to temporarily ban their own citizens from crossing their borders.

In contrast, Japan’s handling of border control in the first months of the year was more chaotic.

That changed on April 3 when Japan introduced a draconian border control policy, banning entry by nearly all foreign residents from 73 countries and regions affected by the spread of the virus.

What prompted some of the most intense criticism of the policy was its failure to distinguish between short-term visitors and long-term residents — a decision that made it the only member of the Group of Seven that refused to allow residents with foreign passports to return to their homes in Japan from overseas.

The strict travel ban, which was augmented throughout the year to eventually cover some 150 countries and regions struggling to contain the virus, remained in place until September. During that time, about 100,000 foreign residents of Japan were kept outside the country’s borders.

Visitors from China arrive at Narita Airport on Nov. 30. | KYODO
Visitors from China arrive at Narita Airport on Nov. 30. | KYODO

What turned out to be the decisive factor in Japan’s implementation of the strict entry ban — and its reluctance to ease the restrictions — was a lack of preparedness to control entry procedures, together with poor testing capacity at airports.

“Quarantine measures would have gotten out of control if thousands of non-Japanese residents sought re-entry at once,” Sagara said, describing a scenario that would have lacked additional control measures to keep track of those who crossed the border. “The testing capacity allowed for only several thousand tests per day at that time.”

Sagara, who interviewed a number of government officials involved in the decision-making process around the border policy, explained that the government did consider lowering its overseas travel alerts, which served as the basis for stricter border control measures. That would have eased restrictions on foreign nationals who live and work in Japan.

According to Sagara and several other veteran observers of Japan, officials in the Abe administration knew Japan needed to open its doors given how heavily it relies on international ties.

Sagara also highlights the government’s rush to introduce an antigen test to more quickly screen for COVID-19 at airports, in the belief that it would somehow accelerate the resumption of business travel.

Lack of debate

Since July, Japan has increased the number of people who can receive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and boosted antigen testing capacity at airports.

Despite that, the government remained reluctant to relax the restrictions to allow foreign nationals equal rights to access their homes as Japanese people arriving from abroad, due to poor awareness of the impacts of the bans on foreign communities and fears of a possible public backlash.

Osaka Airport sees few passengers on Dec. 4. | KYODO
Osaka Airport sees few passengers on Dec. 4. | KYODO

Reports from government meetings do not show any sign of vigorous debate on the consequences of imposing strict restrictions on non-Japanese residents with legal residency status in the nation, despite concerns about international ties and a long-term impact on Japan’s economic interest.

Michael Mroczek, president of the European Business Council, which has lobbied for easing the restrictions, revealed that the officials he interacted with appeared to have been unaware of the impact of the policy on permanent and long-term residents.

“We never got any explanation why, actually, there is unequal treatment between Japanese (nationals) and long-term foreign residents here in Japan,” Mroczek told The Japan Times in a recent telephone interview, recalling his interactions with officials coordinating the border enforcement measures.

Mroczek said that as the pandemic continued to unfold and criticism grew over Japan’s policy, many of the government officials he spoke with were surprised the travel bans led to discrimination against foreign residents of Japan.

The decisions concerning international travel may reflect dissonance between the Foreign Ministry and Justice Ministry, which are responsible for the enforcement of border control measures, and the top level officials in the Cabinet Office who entrusted health experts with the assessment of health risks at the border.

Even if the government bodies that supervised entry procedures and applications for landing permissions had sought to ease the restrictions, they had no authority to push such an agenda forward. The strategies concerning border enforcement measures, which were determined by the National Security Secretariat within the Cabinet Office and approved by the chief Cabinet secretary and the prime minister, were chiefly aimed at addressing concerns about infection rates outside Japan.

Worsening situations in Europe, the United States and other regions where the numbers of infections were skyrocketing — while Japan maintained low numbers of infections throughout most of the year — worked in support of the government’s decision to implement restrictions on travel from abroad.

But the government was also apparently taking into consideration how the policy would be received by the public.

By late March, lax border policy on travel from regions outside China, despite increasing numbers of infections in other parts of the world, had resulted in the emergence of COVID-19 cases among returnees crossing the border unaware of their condition.

A woman undergoes arrival procedures at Narita Airport on Dec. 9. | KYODO
A woman undergoes arrival procedures at Narita Airport on Dec. 9. | KYODO

The failure to stop viral transmission at the border drew criticism from the public, prompting demands for tighter measures.

But that same public did not consider Japanese returnees a threat, even though officials’ reports on infection rates showed cases where the virus was detected in Japanese arriving from overseas.

Swayed by public opinion, the government responded with a set of stricter rules imposed on dozens of countries severely affected by the unfolding pandemic, targeting only foreign nationals returning from abroad.

On top of that, the government faced a challenge in implementing further restrictions on Japanese citizens, who are protected by a constitutional right to enter Japan. Foreign nationals, meanwhile, do not have such protection under the Constitution.

In several interviews with The Japan Times, the Immigration Services Agency, which has been supervising the enforcement of regulations concerning entry of foreign nationals, stressed that the implementation of travel bans was in line with the legally permissible strategy.

Mixed messages

Throughout the year, health care experts on the government’s coronavirus task force expressed concern that they were unable to gain a comprehensive view of the attitudes held by foreign nationals toward the pandemic.

Officials were worried that language barriers, for example, may hamper access to information on basic anti-infection measures, such as avoiding the so-called Three C’s of closed spaces, crowds and close-contact settings.

But that their remarks suggesting inability among foreign nationals to adhere to health protocols were made alongside words of encouragement regarding the promotion of domestic tourism instilled a false perception that the pandemic in Japan was under control, in contrast to the situation abroad, while contributing to a narrative that foreign nationals may have posed a threat.

In the face of such criticism, Japan gradually relaxed the travel restrictions on non-Japanese residents and in November lifted the requirement to seek confirmation of permission to re-enter the country.

A man walks by a flight information board at Haneda airport Monday. | AP
A man walks by a flight information board at Haneda airport Monday. | AP

But the shift has been met by a less enthusiastic welcome than Japan might have hoped from its international community, which continues to worry that in the face of another crisis the nation may once again deprive them of the right to access their homes and livelihoods.

In early December, a coalition of international business groups including the European Business Council and the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan repeated calls to address those concerns, stressing the negative effects of the entry bans on the lives of foreign residents.

Both the EBC and ACCJ acknowledged that a cautious approach in executing border control measures to contain the virus was understandable given the dire situation in many other countries and were appreciative of the government’s change of heart in its approach to resident foreign nationals in the revised policy.

But in a joint statement, the groups emphasized the “serious damage to Japan’s reputation as a country open to global business, diminished interest in pursuing a future career in Japan among foreign students and young professionals, and a deep loss of trust in the government of Japan by multinational firms and foreign national residents” as a result of the travel bans.

The EBC is still responding to inquiries from business people concerned about whether they will be denied entry if they leave Japan, Mroczek said.

He explained that roughly 80% of European residents of Japan he has interviewed decided to stay home during Christmas holidays, worrying about possible difficulties they might face when seeking re-entry to the nation and a return to their Japanese homes.

“It will leave a negative taste,” Mroczek said, “no question about that.”

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