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Japan sealed its borders faster and tighter than almost any country after the omicron variant emerged last month, leaving Japanese nationals, foreign residents, visa holders and exchange students — not to mention their spouses and children — scrambling desperately to find out if they would be able to enter the country, or leave and come back.

And yet, despite all the frustration and confusion, the public was surprisingly supportive of the strong response by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who said last week that border controls set to expire by the end of December will be extended “for the time being.”

The administration’s handling of the new variant has again shone a light on the human cost of tough pandemic countermeasures and demonstrated the country’s continued willingness to pay the price.

“What’s most stressful is the vagueness of the timeline,” said Kiki Lee, a 23-year-old exchange student from China.

Lee is a first-year graduate student at Keio University. She was accepted into a two-year scholarship program but she hasn’t been able to receive the funds, since it requires her to be physically present in Japan. Not only that, the program ends next year in April, at which point she’ll no longer be able to access the scholarship money.

In the meantime, she’s paying full tuition fees while attending classes remotely from China.

Her ability to find an internship or full-time job in Japan — a country she dreams of living and working in some day — is hampered by border controls that don’t allow all visa holders into the country.

The public has appeared to laud the government's border controls, with public polls showing strong support — nearly 90% in one poll — and a bump in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's approval ratings. | REUTERS
The public has appeared to laud the government’s border controls, with public polls showing strong support — nearly 90% in one poll — and a bump in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s approval ratings. | REUTERS

For years, Japan has promoted programs to attract talent from abroad. With its rapidly aging population, the country could become increasingly reliant on young professionals moving to Japan. Lee believes the unpredictable, open-ended bans on inbound travel employed during the pandemic have stalled that progress and could deter future prospective students.

“There are a lot of foreign students that can’t enter Japan,” she said. “I want my first job to be in Japan, but I don’t see how that’s going to happen anytime soon.”

Japan’s borders had been open to new travelers for less than a month before Kishida — in a bid to avoid the fate of his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, whose highly criticized pandemic response led to his short tenure as leader — announced in late November that the central government would ban all newly arriving foreign travelers to avoid importing the omicron variant.

Days later, in a drastic step, the central government called on airlines to halt new reservations for all inbound flights, though the order was retracted following a massive public backlash.

The new restrictions still in place encompass almost all new arrivals — including foreign exchange students, technical trainee interns and those traveling for business — from every country in the world. The entry ban did not include Japanese nationals or foreign residents returning to the country, but the transport ministry’s now-overturned announcement that inbound flights would be halted sparked fears that even people with citizenship or residence status could become stranded abroad.

In addition, the government temporarily suspended visas earlier this month that have been issued but not used to enter Japan, except if the visa holder is the spouse or child of a Japanese national, permanent resident or a diplomat.

The order applies to people who are yet to enter Japan on single or multiple-entry visas issued by March or April 2020 — depending on the embassy responsible for issuing the visa — in a slew of countries.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, travel restrictions have forced many foreign nationals to cancel, postpone or miss funerals, weddings, classes, graduation ceremonies, entrance exams, holidays or family gatherings. | REUTERS
Since the beginning of the pandemic, travel restrictions have forced many foreign nationals to cancel, postpone or miss funerals, weddings, classes, graduation ceremonies, entrance exams, holidays or family gatherings. | REUTERS

The public has appeared to laud Kishida’s actions, with public polls showing strong support — nearly 90% in one poll — and a bump in his approval ratings.

While the country’s border policies have often been criticized as draconian, unscientific and discriminatory, restrictions on inbound travel are widely considered a vital tool in delaying or preventing the domestic spread of an infectious disease.

Kazunobu Ouchi, a professor at the Kawasaki University of Medical Welfare, said Japan’s efforts to counteract the spread of the omicron variant are entirely reasonable.

“Only in retrospect can we know if it was the right decision, but it’s far better to do everything possible now than to suffer the consequences and regret it later,” said Ouchi, who served as chairperson of the Japanese Society of Travel and Health but is currently the organization’s press director. “When there are lives at stake, there’s no time to hesitate.”

Critics, on the other hand, say travel bans, entry restrictions and other border measures are short-term solutions that do little more than buy time. That time could be vital if spent preparing proactively for when the variant begins to spread domestically, but only time will tell whether Japan was able to take advantage of its head start.

The appearance of community transmission of the omicron variant within the country “was a matter of time,” Koji Wada, a professor of public health at the International University of Health and Welfare and a member of the health ministry’s expert coronavirus panel, said last week.

“The central government remains focused on sealing the border but it needs to shift to a different response under the assumption that the variant will spread domestically,” said Wada. “That shift hasn’t been made yet.”

Men wearing protective suits at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 30. | REUTERS
Men wearing protective suits at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 30. | REUTERS

The past two years have been a balancing act for foreign residents, students and workers.

The onset of each new wave of COVID-19 has been followed by a bundle of countermeasures that often began with restrictions on foreign nationals looking to enter or return to the country. These new measures were often announced suddenly, and then revised, expanded or extended significantly and frequently in the days and weeks that followed.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, travel restrictions have forced many foreign nationals to cancel, postpone or miss funerals, weddings, classes, graduation ceremonies, entrance exams, holidays or family gatherings.

For noncitizens, the fine print can make all the difference.

In the wake of new border restrictions, non-Japanese nervously flocked to online communities — the same communities that emerged early on in the pandemic and have subsequently helped foreign residents make sense of confusing bureaucratic policies.

Ever since Kishida announced the border measures in late November, social media has been a gathering place for the destabilized and worried: families returning from abroad but isolating in different facilities, students waiting to build a career but barred from entering the country, people waiting for the day they can travel home and visit family.

The on-again, off-again measures targeting foreign nationals have for many soured their attitude toward life in Japan.

The on-again, off-again measures targeting foreign nationals have for many soured their attitude toward life in Japan. | REUTERS
The on-again, off-again measures targeting foreign nationals have for many soured their attitude toward life in Japan. | REUTERS

For some, the problem lies in the way the new measures were announced.

Michael Bugajski, 35, was born and raised in Chicago but has been living in Asahikawa in central Hokkaido for more than five years. For him, border measures make sense but the decision-making process was opaque and information regarding important updates was hard to access.

He was never sure he wanted to spend the rest of his life in Japan, but the country’s pandemic response solidified that disinclination.

Earlier this month, Bugajski flew home to visit family in the U.S. for the first time in nearly two years. But his feelings were mixed.

That’s because Bugajski has lost his father, sister-in-law and her newborn infant since the pandemic began, but he couldn’t fly home to attend their funerals, much less mourn together with his family.

It was in January 2020 that his father suffered a severe stroke. While his father was recovering in the hospital, Bugajski flew back to Japan in early February for fear its borders would shut and he wouldn’t be able to return. He stayed in Japan because he was concerned he wouldn’t be able to get back in.

Half a year into the pandemic, his sister-in-law passed away. A week later, her one-week-old daughter also died. In December 2020, Bugajski’s father died from complications brought on by the initial stroke.

“To hold onto the people you have, and to mourn for the people you don’t anymore. … If I’m looking forward to anything it’s just to have that moment,” he said.

While he is concerned that he may not be able to return after he leaves Japan — and would therefore risk his job — the greater concern was that his mother and sister have compromised immune systems and he could have taken the virus home with him.

For Bugajski, the decision to travel home transcends the risk of not being able to return. It’s about sharing his grief with the only people who can understand his burden.

“I want to have that moment with my family,” he said. “Honestly, that is worth jumping through all the stupid f—— hoops.”

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