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Japan’s entry ban keeps Indonesian, Filipino workers in limbo

  • January 26, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 5:27 p.m.
  • English Press



TOKYO/JAKARTA — As Japan continues to impose strict entry restrictions, foreigners who have prepared to work there are being left outside ever longer, patiently waiting without losing hope, though frustrations over Tokyo’s border controls are growing.


Kokorono Siji, a job training institute in Indonesia’s Banten Province, prepares personnel in nursing and various other fields for work in Japan. Due to pandemic restrictions, 36 or so of its students are still waiting to enter Japan. The majority have already passed tests on the Japanese language and the “specified skilled worker” visa status for technical interns.


“Since childhood, I have loved Japanese culture, especially Japanese anime such as ‘Sailor Moon,’ so that since childhood, I have dreamed of working in Japan,” Atik Rahayu told Nikkei Asia. The 24-year-old has passed the test for becoming a caregiver as a technical intern in Ibaraki Prefecture but has been waiting to go to Japan for almost two years now. “My family is supporting me, so the delay of two years is very burdensome for the family’s economy. I have sacrificed a lot of time and money, so I will not rush to Japan,” Rahayu said.


Japan closed the border to foreign nationals on Nov. 30, three weeks after a similar ban that had been put in place much earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, blocking foreign business travelers, students and technical intern trainees, was lifted on Nov. 8. Then, in mid-January, the government announced an extension of the ban on new foreign arrivals until end of February as it tries to stop the spread of the omicron variant.


While Rahayu’s work in Japan was postponed, she and her family came in for ridicule from neighbors in their village, who told her, “Don’t dream of being able to work in Japan.” Although she said the two years of waiting has been stressful for her and her family, she added: “My dream is to work forever in Japan and to bring my family there. I will not give up on working in Japan.”


At Kokorono Siji, a job training institute in Indonesia’s Banten Province, students who plan to work in nursing and other fields in Japan practice bowing in Japanese style. (Photo by Koya Jibiki) 

The technical intern program is intended to provide foreign workers with on-the-job training in more than 80 job categories. Even as it helps them acquire skills, it alleviates acute labor shortages in certain industries.


The Japanese government introduced the residency status of “specified skilled worker” in April 2019 for foreign nationals willing to work in any of 14 industries. The proficiency test has been conducted in eight Asian countries outside Japan, and the number of successful applicants has exceeded 23,000. By industry, nursing care and the agriculture and food sector are the most common workplaces.


The number of successful applicants is below 13,000 in Indonesia and about 5,500 in the Philippines, together accounting for nearly 80% of the total. But most of them have not been able to enter Japan as technical interns.


John-Ivan Labayane, a student at Lead Training and Business Solutions in Manila, has already gotten a job offer at a nursing home through the specified skilled worker program. “I would not change my destination even though I’ve been waiting so long,” Labayane told Nikkei Asia, “because it may be physically challenging for us Filipinos to take care of the elderly in North America or Europe, compared with Japanese, who are Asians as well.”


Work aside, he said he is attracted by Japan’s culture and society: “For sure, working in Japan will be tiring, but Japan has a lot of things to look forward to, and it just makes me endure the wait.” While waiting to go to Japan, he is living in his parents’ house.


Another student at Lead, Karen Nielzen Berlanga, is also stuck at home and waiting to work in Fukujukai, a Tokyo-based medical institution. She has already passed the test for the specified skilled worker program.


“I really want to go to Japan soon. While waiting to enter Japan, I’m not working but studying Japanese language,” Berlanga said. “I will never give up going to Japan. I like Japanese culture.” Not everyone shares her determination. With Japan’s borders remaining closed, some of her friends have already decided to go to other countries.


“I would not change my destination even though I’ve been waiting so long,” John-Ivan Labayane, a Filipino waiting to be allowed into Japan to work, told Nikkei Asia.

Japan’s entry restrictions have been criticized by foreigners waiting to enter ever since the outbreak of COVID-19. Some online responses decry the government’s decisions; others argue that work and education are not tourism. One critic on Twitter wrote, “keep the pressure on Japan to begin entry with a sense of urgency!” One posting on an immigration news account accused Japan and noted that South Korea has never blocked visas for international students.


Some Japanese business leaders are also showing opposition to the country’s closure.


The CEO of the e-commerce giant Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani, has tweeted criticism of the strict entry limits, comparing them to the Tokugawa shogunate’s policy of national isolation hundreds of years ago. CEO Tadashi Yanai of Fast Retailing, the company behind the fashion brand Uniqlo, said, “New graduates of overseas colleges that we hire cannot enter Japan.” He added, “This could cause Japan’s national strength to decline.”


On Monday, the chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), Masakazu Tokura, also called for relaxing the entry of foreign nationals: “Now that most coronavirus infections [in Japan] have become omicron variant cases, there’s no point in continuing [the ban.]”


Even a panel of experts under the World Health Organization urged nations to relax or abolish coronavirus-related travel restrictions, arguing that they create economic and social burdens without bringing the intended results.

Blanket travel bans “are not effective in suppressing international spread,” the panel said in a report released on Jan 19, citing the omicron variant.


On the other hand, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida appears confident that the strict measures have public support. He emphasized in a speech on Jan. 17 that Japan is taking all possible steps to combat the coronavirus.

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