A commonly voiced chagrin of the foreigner in Japan is the perpetual sense of being an outsider. The perception became all too real for hundreds of Japan’s long-term foreign residents as they got stranded outside of their country of residence during the new coronavirus pandemic.

On April 3, Japan implemented a reentry ban on all foreign residents returning to the country to prevent the spread of Covid-19 – some of whom were overseas burying loved ones who’d succumbed to the disease. Japanese nationals who traveled overseas, to the same 100-plus nations under current travel restrictions, were exempt from the ban.

Though in early June the restrictions were eased to allow foreign residents to reenter on unclear humanitarian grounds, many expats with valid visas are still stranded abroad – around several hundred as of June 4, according to The Japan Times – for no other reason than they lack a Japanese passport.

These developments come in the wake of some tone-deaf government PR moves, which have only lent credence to the sense of foreign ostracization.

Finance Minister, Taro Aso, attributed the nation’s success in subduing Covid-19 to Japanese people’s higher ‘mindo’ – an invariably vague term approximating cultural values, living standards and intellect – clearly hinting at notions of Japanese exceptionalism. And remember, he uttered these words while a global civil rights movement was in full swing.

Prevention or Discrimination?

On the matter of why Japan would implement a ban that pertains only to foreigners, taking the devil’s advocate position is not so easy. A blanket reentry ban to prevent the spread of Covid-19 – as was implemented in India – holds weight. When birthright is the determining factor, things get iffy.

“If you as a national government allow foreign nationals to live inside your borders, let them pay taxes and social welfare programs like health and retirement insurance, I think it’s a moral must that you treat them almost as your own citizens at the border when they are returning from abroad,” said Sven Kramer, a longtime foreign resident of Japan who launched a petition to have the reentry ban overturned.

Kramer’s online petition, which has achieved more than 9,800 signatures as of the time of writing, was rolled out at the end of May under the title, “Stop the entry ban on legal foreign residents of Japan.” He cited the ethics of legal residency regardless of nationality and being covered by the right to petition as motivating factors.

“I agree that a line must be drawn, but currently it is drawn between nationals and non-nationals regardless of the relationship individual non-nationals have to Japan… I’m respectfully asking the government to redraw the line between residents and visitors, preventing only visitors from entering as long as the pandemic is still dangerous,” he said.

“[The ban] leaves a very bad impression to the outside world”

But affecting change may only be possible with the support of Japanese nationals, and Kramer believes they should have an equally vested interest in the petition. “[The ban] leaves a very bad impression to the outside world. Japan likes to categorize itself as an advanced country on par with her G7 peers, but Japan is the only G7, no, even the only OECD country that has such a policy of not properly differentiating between residents and visitors in her border control measures concerning Covid-19.”

Japan losing its trust among the international community is no trivial matter. Foreign residents fill employment gaps in Japan’s graying workforce and foster economic prosperity through jobs at major international headquarters – of which over 600 are located in Tokyo. And in academia, many students, researchers and educators across Japan have come from abroad; the nation’s institutions are reliant on cross-border collaboration for continued progress.

As Kramer notes, “In order to keep the economy on its current high standard, Japan needs expats that can live here with a feeling of security that they don’t get suddenly shut out during a health crisis… this reentry ban for residents is nothing else but an indirect expulsion. This is why I think every Japanese person [and foreign resident] should be concerned, and should join in the action against this policy.”


Where Do We Go From Here?

A quick scour of the internet and my own network of friends shows residents of various nationalities and occupations still waiting to return to Japanese soil, including international students, university faculty, copywriters, geologists, teachers and others who prefer to remain anonymous, indicating the problem is far from solved.

On June 12, the Immigration Services Agency stealth published a document specifying new details for which foreign residents are allowed to reenter Japan – those returning home to bury deceased relatives, and those with wives, husbands and children in Japan now included. But while the restriction gap may be closing between legal residents and nationals, it still exists.

Elsewhere, Japan is set to relax inbound travel bans from countries with good Covid-19 records, including New Zealand, Australia, Thailand and Vietnam – the latter from which a chartered flight with a capacity of 250 will arrive in late June with no mandatory quarantine period. Businesspeople will be given priority, with students and tourists further down the pecking order.

Whether this is extended to the USA, China and South Korea, with whom Japan have close economic ties, is still up for review. As for now, it’s difficult to tell if this will impact Japanese residents stranded in any of the other danger zone countries.

For a 21st century, democratic G7 nation to remain steadfast on a policy that has shades of xenophobia, is tough to reconcile. The current reentry ban speaks of a governmental distrust of legal residents that aren’t of Japanese blood. Until it is overturned, reciprocal distrust is to be expected.