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A growing number of people who have recently arrived in Japan are raising concerns that malfunctioning monitoring tools and confusing guidelines may have put them on the government’s blacklist for violating quarantine.

Some have experienced problems with reporting their location or health condition, or have been confused as to which rules apply to them and which do not.

Arrivals are asked to install a location-tracking app called Overseas Entrants Locator (OEL), with notification messages requesting location information and health status sent on a daily basis during the quarantine period. They are also asked to install other applications, such as one that notifies people of a close contact with those who have been infected. Those who fail to report are individually contacted by a monitoring team affiliated with the health ministry.

But some users who have downloaded the apps say they are not working as they should.

OEL has only a 1.5 star rating on the Apple App Store, and many Japanese and foreign users have claimed in reviews that they did not receive passwords to log in or that notifications were easily missed. Others reported technical errors that made them unable to check in.

A health ministry official overseeing the monitoring task force previously admitted that the app may not necessarily help achieve 100% location accuracy, as there is a margin of error up to 100 meters.

Several people quarantining in Japan have pointed out they may have mistakenly pressed the wrong button to check in their location, given their confusion over which of the two options ー “I’m here” or “Check in” ー will record their whereabouts. The choice became a problem for those who needed to relocate during the 14-day period, for instance to a different facility.

A Japanese woman, who returned to the country with her three children under the age of 5, recalled having been told by immigration officers that she needed separate QR codes for herself and her children to record the information through the tracking app.

She told The Japan Times that she has been logging in to report the status of each family member with separate passport numbers and birth dates, but often only one family member’s response was recorded.

“I am still getting daily emails to remind me to log onto the app for the other three,” she said.

In addition to technical problems, the system seems to be hard to navigate for older people, who are typically less tech-savvy.

Margaret Yamasaki, 61, who returned to Japan with her Japanese husband on Sunday, has found some instructions on how to use the monitoring apps confusing and has missed some email notifications, including on how to report her health condition.

“It is all overwhelming with so many things to remember all after a long flight with jet lag,” she said. “I found several messages in my junk folder from the health ministry today telling me if I did not respond by 2 p.m. my name would be published as not complying with the rules.”

Arrivals are asked to install a location tracking app or rent a smartphone at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture in April. | KYODO
Arrivals are asked to install a location tracking app or rent a smartphone at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture in April. | KYODO

Those who fail to report their whereabouts and do not comply with quarantine protocols may have their names and other personal information disclosed. If they are a foreign national, they may even have their residence status revoked.

The health ministry has said that up to around 300 people every day could not be confirmed to be at their quarantine location or were found to be some distance away.

During the ruling party’s Foreign Affairs committee meeting Wednesday, the committee chief, Masahisa Sato, voiced his outrage at punishments for those who violate quarantine being taken too lightly and urged the government to punish rule-breakers.

“The fact that more than 300 people cannot be contacted in this situation means that it is not just a water leak, but a burst water pipe that has flooded the area,” he said.

Yamasaki is likely among the hundreds of people who have failed to report their status. She pointed out that navigating all the apps and changing phone settings to make alerts easy to notice requires some technological skills she may be lacking at her age.

Japan now requires all arrivals into the country to provide negative test results from a COVID-19 test taken within the 72 hours before their departure for Japan and be retested upon entry. All entering are also required to pledge they will self-quarantine for 14 days at their home, a hotel or another facility.

The emergence of new and more contagious coronavirus mutations in the country — despite Japan’s stringent restrictions — was what prompted the government to suspect that arrivals may not have been self-isolating as strictly as they should have. That led the authorities to introduce location-tracking apps to make sure that those under quarantine abide by the rules.

It is unclear whether Japanese nationals were among those whose whereabouts could not be confirmed during the quarantine period, as such information has not been disclosed. Some foreign residents worry that the Japanese public may shift the blame for infections detected at airports onto them.

Meanwhile, amid Japan’s slow vaccination rollout, many non-Japanese have already been vaccinated in their home countries before returning to Japan.

“No one has even asked me if I have been vaccinated,” said Yamasaki, who received two doses of a COVID-19 shot in the U.S., which she visits to take care of her father. “I would have thought that question would have been asked or at least the data gathered.”

Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.

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