Japan has firmly closed its borders to foreigners do to Covid-19 concerns. Image: Twitter

TOKYO – As a sudden and unwelcome surge in Covid-19 infections ends weeks of low caseloads, Japan has moved to close its borders to virtually all foreigners until the end of February.

On January 11, at an evening press conference, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced his government had decided to strengthen border measures, extending a prohibition on foreign nationals from entering the country.

That decision maintains a tough framework of strict frontier controls. 

First instituted on November 30, those controls were meant to prevent the entry and spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant. At the time, the controls were limited to about a month as a “temporary and unusual measure” until information including on the pathogenicity of the disease was known.

Even then, the measures aimed at foreign nationals generated some criticism.

“Epidemiologically, I find it hard to understand the principle there,” WHO Health Emergencies Program head Michael Ryan, speaking at a news conference after the controls were announced, quipped.

“Is it that some passport holders will have the virus and some won’t? Does the virus read your passport? Does the virus know your nationality or where you are legally resident?”

Subsequently, Kishida announced he would take into account trends during the year-end and New Year holidays. During a press conference on January 4, he indicated he would make a decision this week.

The decision just taken flies in the face of growing evidence that Omicron has already spread among the general population.

Yet polls show massive support for the government’s ultra-prudent measures. Meanwhile, foreigner support groups railing against the measures have been unable to effectively mobilize or generate a significant voice.

However, one prominent Japanese businessman has angrily lambasted the latest decision – indicating it is Japan’s globally-minded business community that might become the change agent.

Fumio Kishida has faced very little opposition to closing Japan’s borders. Photo: AFP / Du Xiaoyi

Agony of the expat

In addition to the ban on new arrivals, Tokyo has requested that Japanese returnees and foreigners with resident status quarantine at accommodation designated by the Japanese government. Depending upon from where they departed, those arriving in Japan face a waiting period of three-six days at government facilities. 

And in principle, foreigners from some nations may be denied re-entry despite their residency status.

The government has a “special circumstances” rule, which has allowed exceptional cases of entry even for newcomers, but such permissions are rare. Under the system, even the entry of spouses and children of Japanese nationals, or of permanent foreign residents, is banned outside “special circumstances.”

The decision as to what constitutes a “special circumstance” is usually in the hands of civil servants who prefer to veto exceptions rather than face possible censure for being too lenient. The border controls have alienated many permanent residents and workers in Japan, who see a pernicious double-standard at work. 

Throughout much of 2020, when many foreign residents were unable to return to Japan for months, Japanese citizens were still allowed in. For a time, foreign nationals were required to have tested negative before boarding a plane bound for Japan, while locals were not subject to the same requirement.

The double standard has become a cause of contention between Japan and the EU. Through the first few months of the pandemic in 2020, Japan was the only G-7 nation to restrict travel by its long-term foreign residents, while allowing its citizens to enter and exit the country anytime. 

The border restrictions imposed since November 30 have been impacting families. An online petition filed on Change.0rg demands Japan ease its tight entry rules and act in a humanitarian and scientific manner

The petition was started by Japanese artists Takashi Arai and Melek Ortabasi, an associate professor and single mother at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Ortabasi, when she began the petition in December, was not allowed to have her children come to Japan with her.

She wrote on the petition site: “I am being separated from my dependent children because of Japan’s border enforcement measures, which are intended to prevent the spread of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19.”

Her story is unusual in that it has a happy ending as the Japanese government relented and allowed her children into Japan after the bad publicity. Many others have had no such luck. 

A “Return to Japan Support Group” on Facebook, created in July 2020, is filled with stories about families split up, frustration and alienation, as well as distressed requests for information on re-entry. Some of those posting are foreign nationals who are married to Japanese nationals but cannot enter Japan. 

Making the situation particularly stark is Japan’s admission of nearly 11,000 international athletes during last year’s Olympics, held in July and August of 2021. Meanwhile, thousands of foreign students enrolled in Japanese universities are still unable to enter.

That forces them to study online while Japanese students have been allowed to travel abroad and have not faced discrimination in other G7 countries. And Japan only began to admit business travelers and students briefly in November this year and even that effort was minimalist.

Motoko Rich of the New York Times pointed out on Twitter: “In the brief window when Japan was admitting business travelers and students from 11/8-11/25, 104 people were processed. Of that, 87 were short term travelers. So just 17 new long term visas were issued in 17 days.”

And that was before November’s travel ban. 

An empty Narita International Airport. Photo: iStock

The political non-battle

Yet Kishida has no political capital to gain in relaxing the border controls, even if they no longer serve much pragmatic purpose. He has frequently bragged about the harshness of the clampdown.

“Thanks to the most stringent border control rules among G7 nations, we’ve been able to keep the spread of Omicron to a minimal level, which is giving us time to prepare to deal with domestic infection,” Kishida told reporters at his recent press conference.

Indeed, if the travel ban was supposed to prevent Omicron from entering Japan, it has already failed.

As of Wednesday, of the 3,041 known cases of Omicron, 1,237 were detected at the border, while the source of infection could not be determined in 1,659 cases, in which the infected individuals had no histories of overseas travel.

Compare that with December 29, when cases detected at the border numbered 360, while only 64 cases were not linked to any overseas travel.

Meanwhile, indications are rising that might ameliorate the panic. The South African Omicron wave appears to have subsided, and while the UK has been suffering record infections, it has not suffered a disastrous number of hospital admissions or deaths compared with previous viral waves.

Omicron’s comparative mildness is being reflected in Japan. According to local media reports, a Ministry of Health and Welfare study found that 90% of those infected with Omicron in Okinawa had no symptoms and no illness from their infection.

The government has already relaxed the requirement that those infected with the Omicron variant be hospitalized. Most will be allowed to recover at home. Yet the borders remain locked down.

At present, there is little pressure being brought to bear on Kishida or his cabinet. As of Wednesday, the Facebook support group had only 38,000 members, while the Arai-Ortabashi petition garnered less than 15,000 signatures.

Given Japan’s population of 126 million, and its 2.8 million foreign residents, these numbers are minuscule.

In fact, the harsh measures are getting a big local thumbs up. Tokyo’s ban on arrivals by foreigners who lack existing residency status was backed by more than 89% of respondents in a poll taken by the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun. 

“I think it’s not surprising,” Japan Intercultural Consulting’s founder Rochelle Kopp, a prominent voice on Japanese business culture, told Asia Times. “Given that the Omicron variant is spreading and people are worried, it would have been risky politically for Kishida to have not extended [border controls].”

Hiroshi Mikitani has spoken out. Photo: WikiCommons

A rare voice is raised

Even so, there is at least one prominent local dissenter.

Japanese billionaire and business leader Hiroshi Mikitani, the founder of e-commerce giant Rakuten, has spoken out in public against the decision to keep the borders closed.

“What’s the point of not letting in new foreigners now?” he said. “The decision is totally illogical. Does [Kishida] want to shut Japan off from the rest of the world?”

Mikitani’s outburst could be significant. While foreigners clearly lack a voice, Japanese business could feasibly compel Tokyo to crack open the gates.

“There seems to be pressure building to change tack … there was even acknowledgement that there is an impact on Japan’s national interests,” Kopp said. “Mikitani came out and blasted the government for the extension, putting into words what many other business leaders who are being hurt by the border controls are feeling.”

Follow Jake Adelstein on Twitter: @jakeadelstein