Many expatriates living in Japan consider themselves to have two homes. For some, though, the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic left them choosing between their home country and the country where they have built their lives. An associate professor at Tohoku University told us, under the condition of anonymity, they have been stranded in Denmark since early March—just before the coronavirus reached pandemic level.
Japan began closing its borders to certain countries in early April. More nations were added to the ban on April 29, bringing the total to over 100 countries, including all of Europe, most of Asia, and North America. The ban included foreign residents of Japan, regardless of whether they had a working, student, or spousal visa.
Far away from home
In the Tohoku University professor’s case, they left Japan to attend a work conference in Sweden and then continued onto Denmark for further business meetings.
“There were only a few cases in Denmark at that time,” they told us over the phone. “I arrived on a Monday, by Wednesday the Prime Minister was holding a press conference, and by Thursday, people had stopped going to work. We shut down pretty quickly.”
In stark contrast to Japan, however, Denmark has allowed residents and work permit holders to re-enter. Japan is reportedly the only country on the G7 Summit to impose such harsh restrictions.
“Even though Denmark shut down quickly, they allowed residents back in and not only residents but anyone with an important reason, for example, to attend a funeral,” the professor said. “I assumed that because I have a work permit and legally reside [in Japan], I would be able to return.”
That assumption would prove to be wrong.
Trying to reverse the damage
In response to criticism, on June 12, the Immigration Services Agency released updated guidelines for foreign residents to be allowed to re-enter Japan under “exceptional circumstances.” Exceptions include those who left Japan to attend a funeral or who received court summons overseas. Residents with children enrolled in Japanese schools will be allowed re-entry as well.
But the damage has already been done. Many foreigners in those circumstances have been affected for months. Moreover, those who were traveling for work have received no such consideration.
“There are a lot of [foreigners] where it was a question of being torn if they needed to return home in the case of an emergency, but I was out for work, and I’m stuck,” the professor said. “There was no choice to make.”
I know they are taking necessary measures, and I know there’s nothing I can do about it, but it still feels frustrating.
Seemingly backpedaling even further, the Japanese government announced plans to start easing entry restrictions while “prioritizing businesspeople.”
Now, an online petition is calling for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Minister of Justice Mori Masako to “immediately lift” the entry ban for permanent and long-term foreign residents who have their livelihood in Japan. Especially in cases where people have had to travel internationally for “unavoidable and well-defined reasons.”
Wima Natakoesoemah had just gotten his working visa in Japan after finishing Japanese language school and was eager to join the country’s workforce. The 29-year-old returned to his home country, Indonesia, in mid-March to visit his family before starting work in April.
Why is it only Japanese nationals are able to return, but we aren’t? Do Japanese citizens hold some immunity to the virus while we carry it wherever we go?
Mid-way through his trip, news about Japan barring entry from several countries started to pop up on social media. Indonesia was one of the countries mentioned. His company later confirmed he wouldn’t be allowed back in Japan for the time being.
“Now, I may have to wait another month to return,” said Natakoesoemah. “I’m in a vague situation right now, but fortunately, the company has been really understanding of the whole situation.”
Since Natakoesoemah is unable to start work at his company’s office in Ehime Prefecture, he has been doing small translation tasks remotely.
“Working remotely feels rather empty, and it’s not very satisfying because my workload is very little. I get bored easily,” he said. “I know they are taking necessary measures, and I know there’s nothing I can do about it, but it still feels frustrating.”
Issues with expiring visas
Christine, an English teacher who has been in Japan for four years, left Japan at the end of March for a brief trip to South Korea. Unfortunately, her working visa was due to expire in early May. By the time the government announced travel bans on April 3, it was too late for her to re-enter Japan.
“I called Osaka immigration, Tokyo immigration, MOJ, and the Japanese embassy in Korea,” said Christine. “They all were unsure about the ban except Tokyo immigration, who gave me an accurate response. The only thing I can do is wait until the borders open again to return on a tourist visa or apply for a working visa abroad.”
The Japanese government clearly doesn’t care about foreigners who live in Japan…
Like the Tohoku University professor, Christine didn’t think a ban would apply to residents of Japan.
“Abe gave us less than 40 hours to return to Japan, and that’s only if you saw the news right away,” she said. “The Japanese government clearly doesn’t care about foreigners who live in Japan because if they did, why is it that only Japanese nationals are able to return, but we aren’t? Do Japanese citizens hold some immunity to the virus while we carry it wherever we go?”
Now having been stuck in South Korea for over two months, Christine has been paying her rent online but hasn’t been able to make arrangements for her utility bills. At the very least, she hopes she can make it back to Japan on a tourist visa before the August deadline to apply for the ¥100,000 coronavirus stimulus payment.
Have you been affected by Japan’s COVID-19 entry bans? Let us know in the comments.