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A 32-year-old man from Tokyo has spent the past few months helping his new wife, a European, ready documents for a visa application to join her spouse in Japan by early spring. Had the two known about recent changes to travel restrictions imposed on family members of Japanese nationals due to the coronavirus pandemic, which have left her unable to travel and faced with the possibility of losing her source of income and her home, the woman would not have started packing up her life.

“I would’ve never found out (that Japan has halted spousal visa procedures), hadn’t such revelations made the rounds on Twitter,” said the Japanese man, who asked not to disclose his name, fearing that would affect his wife’s application. He found out about the changes in posts shared by people who had contacted government officials.

He explained that he was confused by the insufficient explanation and what later turned out to be out-of-date information on the websites of the Justice Ministry and Foreign Ministry, which gave him the impression that officials from the two ministries never talked the change through.

A foreign ministry official overseeing the procedures recently admitted to The Japan Times that discussions were held on whether to make the decision public and hinted at divided opinions between officials on whether disclosing the changes on the government’s official websites would be necessary. Potential applicants referring to the ministries’ announcements have consequently been led to believe that Japan is still trying to reconnect families separated due to the ongoing pandemic.

“(The way it has been handled) leaves foreign nationals in Japan in a vulnerable position, causing people like my wife to lose trust in the government,” the man said. “I’m not sure we’ll be able to live here knowing that — even if my wife gets permission to travel, (the government) may flip-flop on its decision out of the blue.”

The couple’s case illustrates communication problems within the government, which is considered to be one of the causes of miscommunication with foreign nationals during the pandemic. News concerning Japan’s travel restrictions and visa application procedures are one of the most widely discussed topics among the foreigner community, largely owing to confusion, poor communication strategy and a lack of transparency in the government’s official communication channels.

Growing concerns among foreign nationals in Japan and those seeking official information on government policies and support during the pandemic from abroad highlight the central government’s struggles over crisis communication in general.

Officials and members of the government, including Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, have recently turned to Twitter and other social media platforms to reach out to the public. But a growing chorus of public voices say that, amid the ongoing pandemic, their communication methods have not yet proven sufficient. And experts believe the government’s existing communication techniques highlight a lack of consensus among policymakers and a lack of an effective communication approach, which takes a toll on foreign nationals facing difficulty accessing the information they need.

“If the government doesn’t have a strategy for communicating their policies to the public, they’d better come up with it,” says Itsuko Horiguchi, a professor of risk communication and public health at Tokyo University of Science.

In a recent interview, Horiguchi pointed out that the authorities have at times sent out conflicting messages over their actions in response to the pandemic. She associates the problem with insufficient access to discussions and debates that show the reasoning behind the policies.

TV screens at an electronics store show Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaking at a news conference on Jan. 13 to declare a coronavirus state of emergency in seven additional prefectures, including Aichi, Fukuoka and Osaka. | KYODO
TV screens at an electronics store show Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaking at a news conference on Jan. 13 to declare a coronavirus state of emergency in seven additional prefectures, including Aichi, Fukuoka and Osaka. | KYODO

In fact, news conferences on the pandemic situation by the coronavirus task force are often held with its head Shigeru Omi left with all the responsibility of responding to questions from the media, including those on topics outside his area of expertise. While the outcome of discussions is disclosed to the media, task force meetings are often held behind closed doors. It also emerged last year that records of policy meetings were not always kept appropriately.

Horiguchi suggested Japan should refer to the example it set during the 2009 flu pandemic, when briefings with government officials and experts handling the pandemic response were broadcast more openly. She referred to more frequent broadcasts of news conferences held by local governments and experts ready to respond to specific questions in the field of their expertise.

A lack of transparency has apparently brought confusion to government offices. Regarding border control measures introduced in response to a rise in coronavirus infections, a Justice Ministry official admitted, “Recently we learn more from the news than (from inside the government).”

In the case of border control measures, decisions are made at the Cabinet Office and approved by the prime minister. Statements and notices are later passed to government offices overseeing related procedures. But many foreign nationals who have sought information from government channels say they have been given contradictory information or could not find answers, ending up desperately seeking help in their communities or from other sources.

But it is not only confusion within the government that hinders communication with the public. Both experts and foreign nationals say the government has yet to set up sufficient infrastructure for effective communication with foreign residents in Japan.

As a result, some people struggle with finding specialized support in English. Anne Kyle, originally from the Philippines, who has lived in Japan for 23 years and runs a travel agency operating nationwide, encountered bureaucratic hurdles when applying for pandemic relief for her and her husband’s strained business.

“I did not see an English support service dedicated to helping the foreign businesses out here,” such as one giving information to people who have been infected with the coronavirus, she said while recalling her struggles navigating detailed information in Japanese. She also said the staff at her local ward office in Tokyo did not offer interpretation services.

“Not everyone is Amazon, not everyone is Google who has a whole team of Japanese people. There’s a lot of smaller businesses owned by foreigners who don’t really understand what’s available out there,” she added. “I just think there’s not a general support system, that’s what’s missing.”

To be sure, since the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020, local governments have made some efforts to bridge language barriers, which are usually mentioned as the government’s main concern in reaching out to foreign communities and are often blamed on foreign nationals’ struggles understanding Japanese.

To help address the problem, the Justice Ministry launched a consultation center for non-Japanese in July to provide information about the pandemic and related issues amid a growing number of queries.

The Foreign Residents Support Center, which is located in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, currently responds to roughly 100 consultation requests per day, with a large number of those coming from people who have lost their job. Using an online interpretation service, the center connects foreign nationals with experts and government offices providing legal and other forms of support.

Toshiyuki Tanaka, a ministry official who oversees the center’s operation, believes the center serves its purpose. He admitted, however, that the outreach is limited given its location.

“In some cases, people can find the information they need over the phone,” Tanaka said earlier this month. “But in situations where more consideration is required, for instance when it comes to legal assistance in preparation for a lawsuit, (those seeking support) are better off coming directly to the center to discuss such problems face to face. And we hear comments that such services should be provided in other areas as well.”

A video telephone interpretation system is demonstrated at the Foreign Residents Support Center in Tokyo on July 6, 2020. Hosting the offices of eight public organizations, the support center opened the same day to provide foreign residents in Japan with advice on employment, visas, laws and humanitarian issues in 11 languages. | KYODO
A video telephone interpretation system is demonstrated at the Foreign Residents Support Center in Tokyo on July 6, 2020. Hosting the offices of eight public organizations, the support center opened the same day to provide foreign residents in Japan with advice on employment, visas, laws and humanitarian issues in 11 languages. | KYODO

Horiguchi stressed that risk communication — sharing and responding to information about a public health threat, just like in the COVID-19 pandemic — requires consideration of various groups to enable them to make informed decisions and to make sure the message gets across. In addition, she believes that foreign nationals may be overlooked in the policymaking process.

“Though Tokyo has a large foreign population, foreigners often stay inside their communities and not everyone is exposed to (multiculturalism), and definitely (lawmakers) in Kasumigaseki don’t have sufficient exposure,” to understand their needs, Horiguchi said.

Horiguchi, pointing to characteristics, including age range, of specific media users, also stressed that messages should be conveyed strategically in response to the needs of those at the other end.

She also suggested the government disclose discussions with experts in the policymaking process, for instance by broadcasting on social media such meetings or media briefings on a regular basis without limiting access, like those aired by the World Health Organization.

Horiguchi believes the government’s failure to effectively communicate their policies partially stems from its reliance on advertising agencies and the extent of such agencies’ involvement in publicizing plans and legislation, as well as a lack of risk communication expertise in Japan. She said that this reliance stands in the way of building a strategy to effectively communicate risks, which is needed in crisis situations like the ongoing pandemic.

“I doubt the government has a strategy, which if true, would be a huge problem, but if they’re communicating based on a plan and miscommunication problems continue to occur, the strategy needs to be changed.”

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