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Delia Visser had dreamed of moving to Japan since spending time there as a teenager in 2014. After the country’s borders again slammed shut to non-resident foreigners in November, she switched her destination to South Korea.

Visser, now 25, is one of an estimated 150,000 would-be foreign students left in limbo by the ban. The measure, which also affects workers and business visitors, is by far the strictest among among the Group of Seven advanced nations. 

That’s attracting a fresh round of criticism from the business community as well as students, as domestic virus case numbers hit records — undermining the significance of a policy Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says slowed the flow of omicron cases into the country. A series of polls in December showed overwhelming public support for the ban, though, a key consideration for the government months ahead of an upper house election.

The government’s dilemma comes after a years long campaign to attract more overseas students to Japan, which was meant to help “open the country to the world.” The foreign student population rose to more than 310,000 in 2019, almost double the 2011 figure, only to slump in 2020. A similar pattern has played out with the foreign workers Japan has sought to bolster its aging and shrinking population. 

Masakazu Tokura, chairman of the country’s biggest business lobby, on Monday called on the government to rethink the ban now that omicron makes up the bulk of cases. “Business doesn’t function on a purely domestic basis,” he told reporters, dubbing the bar unrealistic.

His critique followed a letter from a group of over 100 scholars and educators in the U.S and elsewhere to Kishida this month, urging the government to revisit the ban.

“The closure is harming Japan’s national interests and international relationships,” the group said in the letter, adding that researchers and students “become the bridges between Japan and other societies” as “future policy makers, business leaders and teachers.”

Among those waiting for the doors to open are researchers who have received doctoral fellowships to study in Japan from prestigious organizations, like the Japan Foundation and Fulbright, according to Susan Pharr, a professor of Japanese politics at Harvard University.

Japan’s border restrictions are harsh by comparison not only with other Group of Seven countries, but also with neighboring South Korea, which continues to issue visas and allow new entry for foreigners with some virus precautions, but has nonetheless kept daily infections far lower than Japan.  

The measures have added to recent concerns, compounded by a U.S. warning of police racial profiling and a battle over whether to allow limited voting rights for foreign residents, that the pandemic may be fanning xenophobia.

The World Health Organization said in a Jan. 19 statement that measures blocking international travel have proved ineffective in curbing the omicron variant. It recommended lifting or easing such bans, as they “do not provide added value” and contribute to economic and social stress.

Stop Japan’s Ban,” a group launched on Twitter, has organized demonstrations in various locations, including Mongolia, Nepal, Germany and Kyrgyzstan, urging Japan to introduce a road map to the entry of all family, foreign students, workers, and trainees. The group is now working with Japanese nationals to hold protests outside government offices in Tokyo and Osaka, according to Jade Barry, a founder and organizer of the group.

Meanwhile, schools and colleges in Japan are suffering. Lin Kobayashi, chair of the board at United World College ISAK Japan, an international boarding school with students from about 80 countries, said applications for fall entry were down 6% on the previous year. 

While many would-be foreign entrants continue to take part in classes organized by Japanese schools and colleges online from overseas, the time difference can be mentally and physically harmful, Kobayashi said. Her school has opted to transfer 32 online students to related colleges in other countries. 

Visser “absolutely fell in love” with Japan during a six-month stay in Hiroshima, later picking courses in Japanese language, history and business at university in the Netherlands and planning to head back after she graduated. While waiting to be allowed entry, she took online language classes starting at 1 a.m. and worked a part time job. 

When Japan briefly lifted its entry ban in November last year, she began looking for flight tickets and a place to live. The government U-turn put an end to those plans. She’s now preparing to move to South Korea around the end of next month. 

“Japan will always have a special place in my heart and I am grateful for the wonderful Japanese people I met along the way,” she said in an email. “But I started to look at the Japanese government in a different light. 

By admin