When lawmaker Yoko Kamikawa joined the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in September as justice minister, replacing her fellow Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Masako Mori, she took up the challenge of restoring public trust in the justice system.

Kamikawa took over control of governance tainted by the escape of former Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn from house arrest, a gambling scandal involving a former top prosecutor and the indictment of Mori’s predecessor, Katsuyuki Kawai, for violating election laws by buying votes for his lawmaker wife, recently convicted on related charges, during her election campaign in 2019 for a seat in the Upper House.

But Kamikawa also faces scrutiny for the ministry’s handling of tightened border controls imposed in response to the spread of COVID-19, which continues to stir anxiety among the nation’s non-Japanese communities.

The minister, who in her youth shared some of the experiences and challenges faced by foreign communities in Japan while studying in the United States, hopes to regain the trust of foreign nationals who have been left uncertain of their status in their adopted home.

“On numerous occasions, I was reminded that I’m just a part of a minority group, even though I didn’t strongly feel the connection (with other Japanese),” she recalled in an interview earlier this month at her Tokyo office. In 1988, Kamikawa acquired a master’s degree in public administration at John. F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Since her most recent reappointment as justice minister, Kamikawa has stressed her intention to focus on improving policies that impact foreign nationals in Japan.

The 67-year-old says that rigorous restrictions have been unavoidable and were implemented for good reason, given the differences in travel policies and responses to the pandemic worldwide.

“I’m aware the policy caused inconvenience to many foreign nationals but it was (needed) to prevent the spread of the virus into the country, and to protect lives,” she said during the interview on Jan. 19.

Doubling up on mask protection during a recent interview, Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa acknowledges the impacts of Japan’s border control measures on its international communities and visa applicants. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Doubling up on mask protection during a recent interview, Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa acknowledges the impacts of Japan’s border control measures on its international communities and visa applicants. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Nonetheless, the minister wants to offer more transparency around further changes to travel policies targeting foreign nationals, and acknowledges the impacts of the government’s policy on non-Japanese residents as well as foreign nationals whose plans to relocate to Japan have been halted by the travel bans.

“I’d like to take this opportunity to ask (those impacted by the restrictions) for their understanding,” she said in response to the continued criticism over discriminatory treatment against resident foreign nationals that, for a long period, stood in stark contrast with lax procedures for Japanese returnees from abroad.

The government’s most recent announcement, warning that people who breach quarantine regulations on arrival in Japan may have their visas revoked or even face deportation, has reignited concerns among the international community.

Having already maintained a total closure of its borders for leisure travel since last April, the tightened controls Japan implemented earlier this month expanded the existing ban on new arrivals and added penalties that were arguably more severe for non-Japanese residents returning from abroad. The heightened restrictions were introduced alongside other precautionary measures following the declaration of the state of emergency for most of the Tokyo area and other regions struggling with strain on their health care systems and rising infection numbers.

“The differences in treatment between citizens and foreign residents will always occur due to limitations stemming from laws (upon which the measures were based),” Kamikawa said, referring to laws including protections for Japanese citizens under the Constitution.

The most rigorous restrictions to date took effect on April 3 of last year, with a total ban on new arrivals and strict entry restrictions on resident foreign nationals that limited entry permission only to some permanent residents and long-term resident visa holders.

Kamikawa was not involved in those controls, imposed in earlier stages of the pandemic, as the decisions preceded her appointment as justice minister. With her reappointment on Sept. 17, 2020, Kamikawa commenced her third tenure in the role, having previously served as justice minister in the cabinets of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from 2014 to 2015 and from 2017 to 2018.

Between April and August, the border control policy was incrementally expanded to cover more than 150 countries and regions in response to rising numbers of COVID-19 infections worldwide.

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa removes her mask briefly for a photograph during an interview at her Tokyo office on Jan. 19. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa removes her mask briefly for a photograph during an interview at her Tokyo office on Jan. 19. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

As a result, some 100,000 people with valid visas and home addresses in Japan were stuck abroad, unable to return to their Japanese homes. Others faced difficulties seeking re-entry permission while making arrangements to attend the funeral of a family member, for example, or when having to deal with other family-related matters.

Since August, restrictions on the re-entry of foreign residents have been gradually relaxed to allow all residents to travel more freely. But in the wake of the most recent reports on new coronavirus strains believed to be more contagious, and confirmed infections in Japan involving mutated variants first identified elsewhere, Japan has once again tightened its travel policy and added legal consequences for not abiding by the rules.

The recent changes did also impose stricter conditions on Japanese nationals, and Kamikawa said she believes the application of stricter requirements to all travelers reflects “the lessons learned from issues that emerged during the first and second waves of the outbreak.”

Numerous reports from last year showed that lax entry procedures for Japanese citizens resulted in infections being detected at airports upon their arrival. In one such example, a Japanese national traveling from the U.K. in December was found to be infected with the so-called B.1.7.7. lineage of the virus, first discovered in the U.K.

Under the latest restrictions, which took effect in mid-January, Japanese travelers are required to undergo testing for COVID-19 before their departure for Japan and to submit a negative test result upon arrival. Before then, the requirement only applied to foreign nationals entering the country.

Kamikawa admitted that the constantly changing virus situation abroad had made it impossible for the ministry, and other government bodies involved in drafting border control measures, to propose an ideal set of entry procedures the government could stick with throughout the pandemic.

However, she hinted at shortcomings in the previous administration’s handling of border controls that may have stirred uncertainty, especially among the international community.

“I believe in the importance of communicating risks to the public, and it seems that was insufficient during the first wave of the pandemic,” Kamikawa said.

Most announcements on travel restrictions in the first months of the pandemic were announced quietly on government-run websites out of hours and, despite the justice ministry’s efforts to provide multi-lingual and other support for foreign nationals in Japan, often ended up going unnoticed.

Since early January, new visa applicants who have been awaiting entry permission since last year have once again been subjected to a travel ban on all new arrivals, at least until Feb. 7 when the nation’s second state of emergency is set to expire.

“When the pandemic situation improves, these (entry) restrictions will consequently be relaxed. Such measures won’t remain in place forever,” she said in an effort to offer some reassurance.

She added, however, that such changes will require clear criteria for lifting the restrictions and a more cautious and considered approach to implementing anti-virus measures.

“The travel restrictions are supposed to ensure that traveling is, even with more precautionary measures, possible, and it’s vital to work to make it part of our daily lives again, as the situation we’re in right now is unusual,” she said. “But further revisions will need to be made based on evidence on whether and how the measures work, and we’ll need to make sure that information is easily accessible.”

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