BY MAGDALENA OSUMI
In the face of harsh criticism as the only Group of Seven member nation still banning legal long-term and permanent residents from returning home, Japan has softened its stance on humanitarian grounds and says it will allow foreign residents to re-enter the country regardless of their visa status.
The entry restriction, which covers 111 countries, including the United States and most countries in Asia and Europe, was introduced as a measure against the novel coronavirus. It has left several hundred non-Japanese residents stranded abroad and prevented others from temporarily leaving the country as they risk being denied re-entry.
The Justice Ministry posted on its website a notice on May 27 saying that permission for landing may be granted “depending on the individual situation if there are special exceptional circumstances, particularly such as when there are circumstances that require humanitarian consideration.”
Several media reports have suggested that immigration authorities may be trying to backpedal the earlier harsher stance.
“The reality is we’ve been allowing foreigners to return on humanitarian grounds regardless of their visa status all this time,” maintains an official from the Immigration Services Agency, who asked for his name not to be disclosed, in a phone interview with The Japan Times on Thursday. The official in charge of overseeing the travel restriction procedures said the notice was added in response to a growing number of inquiries from residents and others who had already temporarily left the country about what exceptional circumstances are being taken into account.
The announcement also comes after Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi’s call on May 22 for revision of the travel restrictions following reports of foreign nationals stranded abroad or unable to leave Japan to attend the funeral or memorial services of relatives due to the restrictions.
“From now on, humanitarian grounds should be taken into consideration,” Motegi said. “We’re thinking about allowing foreigners to re-enter (Japan) on such grounds.”
On April 3, Japan imposed entry restrictions on travelers from areas severely affected by the pandemic, limiting re-entry to only those with exceptional circumstances and pressing issues that immigration officers had already approved before the residents’ departure.
Under the current ban, people with permanent residency and long-term resident and spousal visas who had left Japan for any of the listed countries before the restrictions were imposed are allowed to return “in principle.” But if they leave now that the ban has been imposed, they will also be subject to the measure.
So far, both the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, which oversee policies related to travel safety amid the pandemic, have failed to clarify what criteria needs to be met to re-enter Japan.
“It’s hard to specify what circumstances can be viewed as humanitarian in nature as the situation of every individual is different,” the official said, noting that the death of a family member or a need for medical treatment abroad should be accepted on humanitarian grounds. He added, however, that foreign residents trying to return to Japan will need to submit documents to support their claims.
Such a lack of clear criteria has also apparently caused confusion among immigration officials. In a previous interview with ISA, The Japan Times was told that such exceptions can only be made for permanent residents, long-term resident visa holders, and spousal visa holders married to Japanese nationals or permanent residents, but not for people with other visa statuses.
The ISA official who spoke with The Japan Times on Thursday didn’t rule out that some immigration officers may have given mistaken information on the conditions under which a person can leave.
The restrictions sparked criticism especially from expatriate Japanese living abroad and other Japanese nationals split from their family members affected by the restrictions. A group of non-Japanese residents in Japan have issued an open letter directed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Justice Minister Masako Mori urging them to revise the policy and allow re-entry to all foreign residents who make their livelihoods in Japan. A petition launched by the group on portal Change.org on Wednesday garnered more than 2,000 by Thursday evening from supporters of relaxing the restrictions for the nation’s legal residents.