BY MASUMI KOIZUMI STAFF WRITER
Scores of foreign nationals queued up at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau on Wednesday, as tourists unable to return home — after international flights from Japan were suspended due to COVID-19 — added to the typical numbers attending the bureau.
The facility in Minato Ward is often congested around the turn of the fiscal year that ended on Tuesday, as many students from overseas typically apply to renew their visas or switch to working visas.
This year the COVID-19 outbreak and travel restrictions imposed because of it have generated an additional flood of tourists and other short-term visitors looking to extend their stays, as they find themselves stuck in the country.
To avoid infections, bureau officials have limited the number of people that can wait near the counters during busy hours since March.
Although the bureau cannot disclose the daily number of applications being processed, “the overall visitor numbers there spiked before the three-day holiday from March 20,” spokesman Soichiro Tanaka said Tuesday.
Some of the stranded short-term visitors had asked for their stays to be extended, while others sought consultations about the process. Tanaka said the extra visitors “had contributed to the congestion,” even after taking into account the seasonal rush.
On Wednesday, the first day of the new fiscal year, the second floor of the Tokyo bureau handling visas was not so busy as to require controls on queues, but a crowd was forming in front of the counter for short-term visitors.
Chen Xuejiao, a 28-year-old student from Liaoning province, China, said she had been waiting for three hours to renew her visa. Chen, who lives in Saitama Prefecture, said that since she feared possible virus transmission from being in the closed and crowded space, she would “clean my clothes and wash my hair when I get back home.”
As part of the efforts to alleviate congestion in the space, authorities at the bureau set up a separate counter on Wednesday, located on the fourth floor, for attorneys and certified specialists who submit applications on behalf of foreign nationals.
Along with the bureau’s own measures to ease crowding, the Immigration Services Agency, an affiliate of the Justice Ministry, has prepared measures to prevent applicants from rolling in all at once, such as granting a one-month grace period for foreign nationals whose visas expire in March or April to apply for renewal of their visa or a visa status change. Short-term visitors are not eligible for the new policy.
At the end of 2019, more than 2.93 million foreign nationals — a record high — were living in Japan, according to the Immigration Services Agency. Tokyo is home to 20.2 percent of the foreign population in Japan, the agency said.