As August 2020 was set to breathe its last, a thought hit me: Winter is coming. This worried me on two counts. Firstly, some research suggests Covid-19 may be more severe in cold weather – though as with most concerns over the novel coronavirus, the jury is still out.

Secondly, and more selfishly, Japan’s reentry policy on foreign residents forbid me from spending Christmas in Northern Ireland – unless I had no plans to return, that was.

From September, however, Japan will finally look to loosen its largely criticized border restrictions, granting reentry to all foreign residents. While the recent news gives cause for optimism, it follows a long and grinding saga of government silence, public unrest and civil action within the expat community, and burnt bridges that Japan will have its work cut out to rebuild.

The Saga Begins

Of the 2.63 million foreign nationals legally residing in Japan, approximately 90,000 valid visa holders have been stranded abroad, continually denied reentry to the country, since the restrictions were implemented on April 3.

Initially billed as “a temporary measure aimed at curtailing the spread of viral transmissions in Japan,” the reentry ban – applied only to those without a Japanese passport – morphed into a resolute policy of separatism with xenophobic undertones. Japan was the only G7 nation to draw such an opaque line between foreign residents and citizens, causing business lobby groups from Europe to North America to Australasia to implore the government to reevaluate their stance.

Finance Minister, Taro Aso’s, infamous comments attributing Japan’s initial coronavirus success to the people’s higher cultural standards, a tight-lipped Foreign Minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, who seemed more concerned with the economy than the rights of non-Japanese residents, and infrequent coverage by local media, exacerbated the divide. Even Prime Minister Abe, ill health notwithstanding, ostensibly took a vow of silence until late July.

Turning the Tide

The original all-encompassing ban, which applied to all foreign residents and incited petitions receiving tens of thousands of signatures, was relaxed in early June to allow reentry under vague humanitarian conditions, or for permanent residents and foreign nationals with Japanese spouses.

Yet it wasn’t until August 5 that Japan began allowing one-time reentry for students, and other valid visa holders, who left before their respective countries were added to the 140-strong travel ban list. Access was only granted upon submission of a negative PCR test carried out within three days of their flight to Japan.

It still felt like the government was reluctantly extending an olive branch rather than seeking parity between non-Japanese and Japanese citizens. Some nation’s PCR tests were carried out in a different format to Japan’s (and therefore the results weren’t accepted) while others had quotas exclusively reserved for hospital patients. In addition, Japanese nationals were only required to do a PCR test upon arrival, along with a 14-day self-isolation period which was – all but in name – voluntary.

The recent announcement Japan will ease reentry restrictions on all foreign visa holders starting September 1, is the moment many gaijin have spent that past five-months dreaming of. The changes apply even to those who left after the ban was implemented, or have yet to leave, and covers an upgraded list of 159 countries.

The government is also looking to fast track issuances of new visas for business people in various fields, and is granting entry to new arrivals whose work or study visas had already been processed before the ban.

The new entry stipulations also align with those for Japanese citizens, including a PCR test on arrival and a mandatory period of self-isolation. For now, however, foreign residents must also prove they received a negative PCR test result within 72 hours of their scheduled return flight to Japan and apply for a Receipt for Request of Re-entry from the Immigration Services Agency before departure (or their local Japanese consulate if their already abroad).

A Traveless World No More?

Watching friends and family skip off to last-minute holidays in the rolling hills of southern France, or for a couple weeks cooking on Mediterranean sands, served as a reminder cross-border travel bubbles had opened. Though tourism is a lynchpin of the faltering Japanese economy, it has yet to grant recreational travelers such access.

The new reentry policy allows foreign residents to move freely between Japan and other nations – adhering to necessary testing and quarantining protocols – which, along with the introduction of business travelers, will likely work as a litmus test for the mass return of foreign visitors.

Chinese tourists accounted for approximately a third of Japan’s 31.9 million visitors in 2019. In spite of a testy relationship between the two Asian powerhouses, China is included on the list of 16 ‘safe zone’ countries from which Japan will start accepting business travelers next month. Other APAC nations are also included: Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam (the latter two from which 160 business travelers already arrived in Japan between August 17 and 23.)

Burnt Bridges

But there is a more pressing question: Are Japan’s policy changes too little too late?

Since April, tales of foreign residents who no longer feel welcome in Japan have been steadily on the rise: the grieving daughter denied reentry after flying across the world to bury her mother; the father trying to maintain a relationship with his Japanese kids across thousands of miles and umpteen time zones.

Being othered can be part of the paradoxical lure of Japan; we may even wear our gaijiness like a badge of stoic honor, become secretly proud when we fail to get Japan’s pedantic etiquette right or self-depreciating at the inadequacy of our bows. But when your basic, dare I say inalienable, human rights are stripped away purely because your passport has the wrong emblem stitched on its cover, the blade cuts deeper.

Japan has an uncanny knack for instilling a dichotomy of contentment and distrust in those of us who have immigrated here. Recently the latter has outweighed the former. But as The Japan Times columnist, Colin P.A. Jones, wrote:

“Mature adults come to realize that loving other people means accepting them as they are and not expecting them to change when or the way you think they should. Probably it is the same with countries, and much as we of its foreign diaspora may still love Japan, we should set our expectations accordingly. Japan may even love us back, just not unconditionally.”