After over 18 months of restrictions, Japan has lifted its entry ban on overseas students, ending a long wait for many who have seen their study plans disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
But due to the substantial paperwork required by authorities and a daily cap on arrivals, foreign students are still in for a wait before they can enter Japan.
The onerous process has sparked criticism from students — many of whom are facing a dilemma over whether to keep waiting or explore other academic options — as well as from universities, who fear they’ll lose talented students to rival schools in other countries.
A Chinese student taught by Takuji Iwasato, a professor in the genetics department at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in the city of Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture, is one of the students affected by the lengthy entry ban.
Earlier this month, Iwasato spoke with the student, who attends his classes remotely, and she told him that she was considering dropping out of the university to study in a different field.
“It’s hard to wait any longer without knowing what would happen in the future,” she told Iwasato in an online meeting on Nov. 10. “I’m thinking of branching out to another field.”
Since enrolling at the university in April, the student has been reading academic papers and taking online classes and seminars from her home in China. But she has been unable to work on her experiments — the pillar of her research — for the past seven months, even as more countries start accepting international students, including Japanese students studying abroad.
So when the Japanese government announced it would start opening the country’s borders to foreign students, both the student and Iwasato were delighted.
But that excitement soon turned into disappointment when they found out that the procedure for students who enrolled in the spring won’t start until next year as the education ministry decided to prioritize those with a Certificate of Eligibility issued by the end of March 2020, due to the daily cap on the number of people who can enter Japan.
Holders of Certificates of Eligibility exchange the document for a visa upon arrival in Japan and the certificates are a requirement for midterm and long-term residency.
“I felt as if I had hit rock bottom,” said Iwasato. “The students’ futures are at stake, but the government is slow to respond. Japan can lose trust from this.”
Kayoko Hayashi, dean at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (TUFS), which is awaiting the arrival of 200 foreign students, also expressed frustration with the long waiting period for foreign students, saying it could negatively affect the international competitiveness of Japanese universities.
“Many education institutions compete fiercely to attract international students. Some of the students have decided to go to different universities,” Hayashi said. “I want foreign students interested in Japan to be allowed in as soon as possible.”
Hayashi urged the government to consider measures that would help avoid reimposing a blanket ban on foreign students, even if a sixth wave of COVID-19 infections hits Japan.
At Akita International University, more than 100 foreign students are waiting to come to Japan, with most of them having enrolled in April.
“I am frankly happy to be able to bring international students back to our campus,” said Hiroki Yoneda, an official at the university. “We can finally move forward.”
But Yoneda was also worried that the new procedures will require a lot of commitment from the universities that accept foreign students, noting the school’s responsibility to check up on them during their self-quarantine period and report to the government if they violate quarantine rules.
“We’ll be busy with the graduation ceremony and other things so we’re worried about taking on the task,” he said.
Japanese language schools are also facing similar struggles.
At the New Japan Institute in Fussa, western Tokyo, most of the school’s 250 students enrolled in April.
“At first, I thought we were finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” principal Takashi Nakashima said of the policy revision. “I hope the government will make the restrictions flexible so that students can come to Japan soon.”
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