When news of Japan’s entry ban on new visitors first began trickling out Monday, Elin McCready had already weathered much of the worst.

After the relaxing of restrictions just three weeks earlier, the 48-year-old professor of linguistics and philosophy at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University quickly began the process of helping her partner make the journey from Sweden to Japan.

In those three weeks, she gathered much of the needed paperwork, helped find a company to sponsor his visa and navigated a bureaucratic maze while preparing to submit the documents.

“We were expecting it to come out by tomorrow at the latest,” McCready said of a government certificate granted to those whose documents have been screened. “All his application paperwork is ready to submit and he was planning to leave for here on the day after Christmas, exactly a year after we found out the borders were closed the first time.

“Now we are back in limbo for who knows how long,” she said.

McCready is far from alone.

A staff member checks the temperature of a passenger boarding an international flight at Narita Airport on Tuesday. | REUTERS
A staff member checks the temperature of a passenger boarding an international flight at Narita Airport on Tuesday. | REUTERS

Scores of people, many having waited more than a year to enter Japan, erupted in anger and despair on social media over the tough new measures Japan has reimposed amid growing concern over the new omicron variant of COVID-19.

The country’s new entry measures — which together with Israel are among the world’s most stringent — mean that from Tuesday all new visitors are barred from entry to Japan until the end of December at the earliest.

Although Japanese nationals and foreign residents will still be allowed to return to Japan if they have traveled abroad, foreign students, foreign technical interns and businesspeople posted to Japan will be banned from entering.

The decision came just three weeks after Japan opened its doors to business travelers, foreign students and participants in Japan’s Technical Intern Training Program on Nov. 8.

Despite the restrictions, Japan on Tuesday confirmed its first case of the omicron strain after a man in his 30s who had traveled from Namibia to Narita Airport tested positive for the coronavirus on arrival Sunday and was later found to be infected with the heavily mutated variant.

Narita Airport on Monday night | KYODO
Narita Airport on Monday night | KYODO

In announcing the entry ban Monday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called it “a preventative, emergency measure” as Japan seeks “to avoid a worst-case scenario” while more information is gathered on the omicron threat.

“Research is needed to determine how contagious the omicron variant is globally, and whether vaccines are still effective in preventing transmission or severe symptoms,” he said. “It’s crucial that we respond to the situation quickly and flexibly.”

The World Health Organization has said it will take days to weeks to determine how infectious the omicron variant is and how resistant it may be to vaccines.

Students in limbo

Monday’s announcement also caught universities off guard as they prepared paperwork to allow their long-awaited foreign students to finally come to Japan.

“Of course, as an educational institution we want our students to study in a safe environment at all times, but the entry ban was handed down indiscriminately not because we know it will work but because we don’t know what will,” said Tetsuo Morishita, Sophia University’s vice president for global academic affairs.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Sophia University had been accepting around 300 foreign exchange students annually. Over the last two years, however, those who couldn’t make it to Japan found themselves taking classes online while they waited — which can upend their sleep patterns and disrupt their everyday life depending on time differences.

The arrival lobby at Narita Airport on Monday night | KYODO
The arrival lobby at Narita Airport on Monday night | KYODO

While Morishita acknowledged that strict countermeasures may help prevent the spread of the virus, he urged the government to adopt a less heavy-handed approach — one that allows for more flexibility and individual consideration.

“People who want to study in Japan, to see its culture and learn its language, tend to have a narrow window of opportunity,” he said. “To be suddenly denied that chance after months, if not years, of preparation must be discouraging to say the least.”

Experts are mixed on the effectiveness of shutting out the new variant by slamming border doors closed, with some calling omicron’s arrival inevitable. But the move could still buy Japan some time to formulate a robust response aimed at preventing a surge in cases like that seen with the delta variant.

Observers and government officials have said the measures and the quick implementation by Kishida — whose mantra in responding to crises has been “speedokan wo motte,” or “with a sense of urgency” — are expected to reflect well on his administration. Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, had been heavily criticized over his administration’s perceived slowness and indecision in its response to the pandemic.

The discrepancy is too big’

For those caught outside Japan, however, the moves are being seen in an entirely different light.

Bianca Toeps, a 37-year-old web developer and author from the Netherlands, has now twice had to grapple with the effects of an entry ban. She had initially planned to move to Japan to open a startup business last January, but stricter measures imposed ahead of that left her in limbo and cost her a hefty sum of money.

For Toeps, who said she had recently purchased an apartment in Japan that would be her office, the latest moves reek of contradictions.

If a Japanese citizen, she said, were to return to Japan from The Netherlands, they would have to quarantine for six days at a government-approved hotel, and could spend the rest at home.

“But I’m banned. The discrepancy is too big,” she said.

Still, others — including one American in his 40s who was just a day away from his flight to Japan to attend one of the nation’s premier Japanese language schools — said that while the measures were disappointing, they were, to an extent, understandable.

Aside from being without health insurance in the U.S. after canceling his plan, the man, who asked that neither he nor his school be identified, said there was little more he could do than wait.

“Knowing what happened last year, and earlier this year — in terms of opening up slowly and then the case counts going up and then closing back up, that kind of repeated process — I’m kind of mentally prepared,” he said. ”So maybe it’s not as big of a shock to me as it is to other students.”

But in terms of the new variant, as well as the issue becoming politicized for Kishida, he said it was obvious that this was probably the leader’s sole option.

“It seems like the politically smart move, or maybe the only move politically,” he said. “Being decisive rather than being wishy-washy in the COVID world is important.”

So what’s next?

“Just waiting, just waiting, you know, it’s kind of like it’s just more of the COVID situation. Hurry up and wait,” he said. “I mean, that’s kind of what we’ve been doing the whole time.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.