A devilish Shinto mask may represent Japan's alluring traditional culture, but xenophobic entry policies may well undermine Japan's future plans to be a tourism, business and finance hub. Photo: Tom Coyner

TOKYO – In recent years, Japan has promoted itself as “Cool Japan,” seeking to lure tourists with its futuristic trappings, its appealing traditional culture and the modern draws of manga, anime and a more general warm, fuzzy cuteness.

However, after two years of essentially closing the doors on foreigners seeking to enter the country, while keeping students, resident workers and spouses hanging in limbo, that image has changed.

Behold the new brand: “Cruel Japan.”

Japan’s staunch, pro-business newspaper the Nikkei has been reporting on the damage the travel ban has done to Japan’s reputation and soft power globally. An article published on February 11 referred to the world’s third-largest economy as 残酷日本, or Cruel Japan.

Within a day, #CruelJapan began trending on Twitter in Japanese. The usual right-wingers and nationalists tried to quash the trend, but a great number of Japanese citizens were sympathetic.

In short, the Nikkei article made a splash. And its contention is far from groundless.

Foreign students in Tokyo learning Japanese. Photo: WikiCommons

The queue at the gates

According to local reports, more than 140,000 students with visas have not been allowed in, and some have waited over two years. The waiting list to enter Japan, as of January 4, was more than 400,000 foreign nationals, including students. All had received prior approval for their status of residence, according to Japan’s Immigration Services Agency (ISA).

Across the globe, business and academic circles have criticized Japan’s Covid-19 regulations as excessively strict. Yet many in Japan have only recently become aware of the plight of the many foreigners stranded outside Japan.

Toyo University Professor of Public Diplomacy Kumi Yokoe addressed the problem succinctly in a February 1 interview with the Mainichi Daily.

She pointed out that while Japanese people freely leave the country and return to it –  512,000 in 2021 – foreigners have no such freedoms.

“Because Japan’s border controls are very strict for foreigners, there is an aspect that conveys the message that ‘Japanese people only care about themselves.’ While there are Japanese people who can go abroad to have fun or study, there are foreigners who are separated from their families or cannot enter Japan for more than a year. This is clearly not fair.”

Particularly harsh strictures were added to prior border controls at the end of November 2020, when the Omicron variant became known. Those measures are only shifting now that Omicron has passed its peak in Japan.

The government announced on February 17  that Japan would be loosening border restrictions, allowing students and others into Japan at an increased rate – from 3,500 a day to 5,000 a day, though non-resident entrants will be required to show proof they have been vaccinated three times.

Tokyo also said it would reduce quarantine times for incomers from seven to three days.

Things have been reasonably quiet at Narita International Airport. Photo: iStock

The plans made sense, once

At present, it is not even clear which door into Japan’s labyrinthine bureaucracy hopeful foreigners should line up outside.

“With the current restrictions on foreigners entering Japan, it is not only impossible to get in line, but it is also difficult to know where to line up,” Yokoe said in her interview. “In this situation, there are some people who are able to enter the country with ‘VIP treatment,’ so to speak.

“While many countries do not restrict entry conditions under the Coronavirus based on nationality, it is natural for people to complain about the unfair situation in Japan.”

When the highly infectious Omicron virus appeared on the scene in November, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was quick to close the borders, in an effort to buy Japan time to figure out how to cope. Even then, the implementation left many people in the lurch.

The Ministry of Transportation, allegedly on its own authority, told airlines to stop booking flights into Japan. Hundreds of flights were canceled. Only when Japanese citizens trying to return became angry was this “request” rescinded.

Though Kishida has bragged that Japan has had the strictest border controls of any G7 country, they very, very obviously have not worked. Omicron entered the country en masse and now more than 200,000 people are quarantined at home with mild symptoms.  

But Japan’s travel ban has been unscientific and xenophobic from the start – even the WHO caustically criticized the measures last November.

“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?”

At least some Japanese politicians have heard the message.

The high-profile Taro Kono, a long-term ruling-party war horse, was one of the first to throw his hat int0 the ring. He said on social media and in interviews that the ban should be lifted on March 1 to allow in students and businessmen posted to Japan.

Kono argued that while initial measures made sense, with Omicron now already spread across Japan, the horses have galloped far out of the barn.

In an interview with Reuters, he echoed the words of WHO experts. “Why should we discriminate against foreigners? Omicron doesn’t know if (a person) is Japanese or American or Iranian,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense – economically, scientifically or whatever.”

The famous Senso-ji Buddhist temple in the Asakusa historic district of Tokyo was a hot tourism spot. In 2017, a record 28.7 million people visited Japan. Those numbers have now dropped considerably. Photo: iStock

Foreign businesses bang the table

It is not only academics and politicians who are frustrated.

An American business executive working for an IT firm in Tokyo, speaking on condition of anonymity as his Japanese wife feared his published remarks might cause the couple problems, was blunt.

“It has always been difficult to get good talent to come to Japan, but the double-standard and frankly racist border restrictions imposed here during the pandemic have been a death blow,” he told Asia Times.

“It really pissed me off to see those same restrictions loosened and ignored for the thousands and thousands of athletes, support staff, IOC fat cats and VIPs who came for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.”

He noted that when Japan first imposed a widespread travel ban last April 1 that it included permanent foreign residents – people who live, work and pay taxes in Japan. That ban on the re-entry of foreign residents was not lifted until September 1.

Others have spoken in plain sight.

At a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on February 9, Christopher LaFleur, a special adviser to the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, had scathing things to say, which suggest that the damage done will impact more than Japan’s reputation.

“Japan’s ban on entry by business and student travelers has really posed an increasing economic and human cost. The ban and the moratorium on the issuance of new visas have prevented Japanese and global companies from bringing in the talent they need. It’s separated spouses and other family members, and it’s definitely set back efforts to revive Japan’s economy.”

That last point is backed by Japanese media.

According to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, at one point during the pandemic, Germany’s Siemens suspended joint projects with Japanese machinery-related companies. Some new investment agendas were also put on hold.

This is because 10-15% of employees of Siemens’ Japanese corporation are foreign nationals, but are unable to enter and exit Japan.

Yet some high-profile leaders decline to address the issue.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike did not directly answer the questions she was asked. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

A global finance center in ‘Cruel Japan?’

On February 8, 18 months into her second term in office, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike gave a press conference about her plans to transition the megapolis into a global financial center like Singapore or Hong Kong.

The words “inclusivity” and “diversity” were dropped several times – just as those words were bandied about during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. But Koike did not address the elephant in the room.

So Asia Times put her on the spot, asking: “For two years over 150,000 foreigners – who have had visas, some who are permanent residents – have not been able to come here, or return home. Many now consider Japan a xenophobic country where you won’t be treated well as a non-Japanese. How can you ensure that coming here is a good idea if you’re a foreigner, and that you’ll be treated like a human being – or at least like a Japanese?”

Koike’s response was telling.

Instead of answering the question, she talked of the need to take measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, pointing out that she had just had her booster shot.

Her left arm hurt, she said.

Asia Times also pointed out to Koike, when asking her the question, that she was the first Tokyo governor in decades not to pay homage to the Koreans working in Japan who were massacred after the 1923 Kanto Earthquake.

That slaughter was rooted in xenophobia which led to Japanese nationals and police blaming Koreans for the chaos that followed the natural disaster.

While nobody is suggesting that modern Japanese are going to massacre resident foreigners, the persistence of anti-foreign attitudes have again become visible in the pandemic era.

Hence, “Cruel Japan.” It is a reputation that may damage not only Brand Japan, but also Japan Inc.

A recent study published by the Japan International Cooperation Association found that a fast-silvering Japan will need 6.74 million foreign workers in 2040 to maintain economic prosperity.  

Given the recent comments by foreign businesspeople in the country, the legacy of two years of discriminatory border controls could have a dire, long-term impact.

Follow Jake Adelstein on Twitter: @jakeadelstein