The pandemic border policy that will leave a scar on Japan’s foreign community

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Bloomberg Best of the Year 2020: A man walks through a near-empty departures hall of Narita Airport during the Covid-19 pandemic in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, on Sunday, July 19, 2020. Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

TOKYO:___ A common story of 2020 is one of starting the year with plans to do something grand only to have them thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic. By now, you’ve likely heard a variation of this story wherever you are in the world, localized in a way that produces a different outcome.

For Luana Lambert of Sao Paulo, the story is one of heartbreak. Last year, while studying in Canada, she met Yuya Kinouchi, a native of Yokohama whom she still refers to as “the love of my life.” The couple began living together in Toronto, and their plans for 2020 involved her meeting his family in Japan in April.

As the coronavirus spread from country to country, however, they made the difficult decision to return to their respective home countries. On March 21, they exchanged tearful goodbyes at the airport, and she has been unable to get permission to join him in Japan since.

“There’s nothing worse than saying goodbye to someone who you love, without knowing when you will be able to see them again,” Lambert tells me via Twitter.

While Japan has made efforts to reunite married couples separated by the pandemic, there has been no similar allowance made for unmarried couples.

“I would be grateful if the Japanese government would ease entry restrictions for foreigners who are in committed relationships with Japanese citizens,” says Lambert, adding that she has been unable to shake the depression that has enveloped her over the past eight months of her separation from Kinouchi.

“Binational couples need exceptions. Our mental health is deteriorating because we can’t see our partners.”

Lambert’s story of closed borders and a long-distance relationship is one part of how the coronavirus narrative unfolded in Japan and, for many non-Japanese people living here, the events of this year have affected how we see our futures in this country.

Canceled flights, canceled plans

It all started when, in line with many other governments around the world, the administration of Shinzo Abe closed the borders to almost all travelers on April 3 in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19. Unlike guidelines put in place by numerous other governments, though, non-Japanese residents (including those with permanent residency status) were treated differently from Japanese citizens, who could return to Japan freely while most non-Japanese were blocked from entering and returning.

This left many non-Japanese stranded abroad, kept away from jobs, homes and families in Japan, and the situation continued for months. The policy had the additional effect of trapping non-Japanese residents inside the country, fearful that if they left they wouldn’t be allowed back in. This prevented them from flying home for important personal matters such as caring for sick relatives or attending funerals.

Empty halls: People sit in front of an empty service counter at Narita Airport in July. | BLOOMBERG
Empty halls: People sit in front of an empty service counter at Narita Airport in July.  

Eventually, exceptions began to be made on humanitarian grounds in June, but the standards upon which they were decided were unclear, leaving residents at the whim of the particular immigration officer assigned to their case.

Restrictions were finally eased in August and September enabling non-Japanese residents to re-enter Japan. And in October, foreigners seeking to begin studies or a new job here were also allowed entry. However, getting into the country now requires a lot more complicated paperwork as well as a negative coronavirus test result within 72 hours prior to departure — none which are required from Japanese citizens.

The fact that Japan is treating its citizens differently from those who are not citizens but nonetheless still live and work here — and pay into the same tax and pension systems — has hit a raw nerve for many.

Business not so usual

While Japan’s travel restrictions have been eased, their impact continues to be felt by individuals such as Lambert and the broader businesses community. Challenges remain in dealing with the required paperwork and pre-departure testing, and some continue to find themselves in situations that fall through the cracks of the current rules and procedures.

Officials at both the European Business Council and the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) have expressed relief and appreciation for the easing of travel restrictions that took place in September and October.

“These measures have certainly helped U.S.-based companies to maintain operations and continue contributing to Japan’s economy,” says ACCJ Chairman Christopher LaFleur.

The tourism drop: A notice of temporary closure stands behind a gate at the Kyoto National Museum in March. With borders closed, the number of overseas tourists plummeted to almost zero. | BLOOMBERG
The tourism drop: A notice of temporary closure stands behind a gate at the Kyoto National Museum in March. With borders closed, the number of overseas tourists plummeted to almost zero. | BLOOMBERG

Akiko David, head of corporate communications at Global Trust Networks (GTN), a company that provides support services to companies and their non-Japanese workers, says that firms are “gradually” starting to resume bringing new employees in from overseas. However, with the number of daily entrants of those holding residence visas restricted to 1,000 people per day, not everyone looking to enter Japan can do so immediately. GTN President Hiroyuki Goto notes that people who were supposed to arrive here last spring are currently waiting in a queue, and he expects that the number of people in that queue will continue to increase.

Part of the paperwork required for new entrants to Japan is a pledge that your Japanese employer must sign saying you or anyone accompanying you don’t have COVID-19 and will adhere to a detailed quarantine regimen. Megumi Fujii, a partner at EY Japan who specializes in international mobility, reports that many of her clients struggle with the “psychological burden” of signing such a document due to the threat of sanctions against the company if an employee is deemed to violate its conditions.

Not surprisingly, there continue to be reports of companies and universities unwilling to sign the pledge, particularly for the spouses of employees or students.

Looking ahead

When it comes to how this year’s border policy will affect Japan’s reputation as a place for business in the international community, LaFleur strikes a balance of optimism and caution.

“U.S. businesses in Japan appreciate the notable success Japan has achieved to date in limiting the spread of COVID-19 in Japan,” he says. “(But) our members remain highly concerned by the discriminatory treatment of long-term foreign residents with respect to remaining travel restrictions to which Japanese nationals are not subject.” LaFleur adds that the fact “there appears to be no scientific basis for this discrimination” will inevitably be taken into consideration when foreign companies evaluate future business opportunities. He believes this is “unfortunate,” especially in light of Japan’s interest in encouraging foreign investment, including in the financial sector.

Despite this concern, Japan continues to be an attractive market for foreign firms, who will likely continue to send staff here.

Take caution: A medial worker wearing personal protective equipment prepares to work at the coronavirus PCR testing center at Narita International Airport in November. | BLOOMBERG
Take caution: A medial worker wearing personal protective equipment prepares to work at the coronavirus PCR testing center at Narita International Airport in November. 

“The outlook for Japan remains positive as it represents a unique destination for many companies,” says William Titus, COO of the relocation support company Relo Japan. “It may be high in cost and feature various cultural barriers for arriving foreigners, however Japan is still innovative and internationally competitive, with a robust manufacturing infrastructure and next-generation research centers.” He adds that the fact that “to date Japan has been relatively unscathed by the pandemic” adds to its appeal.

As for Japanese firms, attorney Atsuro Tsujino feels that they will continue to need the non-Japanese workforce “not just because of a labor shortage in the super-aging society,” but also because more diversity is necessary to produce disruptive innovations and bolster global competitiveness. GTN’s David predicts a particularly strong demand from industries not hard hit by the pandemic, such as IT and construction.

Kenji Umeki, head of the Fukuoka-based nonprofit You Make It, points out that, due to the pandemic, Japanese companies serving inbound tourists and those planning to hire non-Japanese to help with foreign expansion have had to “go back to the drawing board,” a move that caused immediate layoffs of non-Japanese employees and which will likely affect long-term demand for non-Japanese talent.

Lingering effects

Andrew Grimes, the founder of Tokyo Counseling Services, believes that the coronavirus and the travel ban issue have led to people making decisions to pack up and leave Japan.

“As was the case after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, many residents from other countries have been influenced by the concerns of their families back home and have decided to repatriate for good,” he says.

Some non-Japanese residents who have left or are considering leaving Japan say that the travel ban has been a key factor in their thinking.

Alexandra Pernau of Brazil came to Japan for graduate studies five years ago as a MEXT scholar and, after completing her degree, stayed on to teach animation and computer design. She was visiting Brazil in March when, due to early panic over the pandemic, her return flight to Japan — and all other flights from her airline — were canceled, leaving her stuck in the Sao Paulo airport for two days. She was only able to return to Japan because her boyfriend’s sister put an exorbitantly expensive flight from another carrier on her credit card.

The experience, the ensuing re-entry ban and various non-pandemic concerns such as the difficulty of renting an apartment as a foreigner, made her realize how vulnerable she is as an expatriate, and she has made the decision to leave Japan. She is now actively applying to doctoral programs overseas.

“After seeing stories of people being locked out, it made me think that there really isn’t a future in Japan for someone like me,” she says. “They want my taxes but they don’t want to guarantee the same rights to me. It’s a lot of gaman (putting up with things) but not a lot of recompense.”

However, despite the shock and accusations of discrimination from many non-Japanese residents about how travel restrictions have been carried out, it doesn’t seem that huge numbers of them have immediately decided to leave the country as a result. And while the inconvenience and negative signaling are a concern for businesses, they are not likely to be the deciding factor in future location decisions.

Rather, it seems likely that the disparate treatment of non-Japanese residents will become one factor of many that individuals and companies weigh when considering whether to come to or stay in Japan, joining a list of grievances that includes housing discrimination, low salaries, high taxes, long work hours and communication challenges — all of which ultimately detract from Japan’s competitiveness in attracting global talent.

True, these negatives can be balanced out with factors such as a dynamic business environment, a safe and comfortable lifestyle, and access to a fascinating culture, but given the uproar from many after discovering just how limited their rights are here when compared to their Japanese neighbors, the events of 2020 are not likely to be forgotten anytime soon.

“The importance of non-Japanese employees for Japan’s economy has not changed at all,” says Tsujino, “but it may take a long time to get their trust back.”

In the meantime, Lambert is waiting for borders to open or for an exception to be made for unmarried partners, so that she can see Kinouchi again. “I don’t want to travel for sightseeing,” she says. “All I want is to be with the person I love.”

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