Robert Dujarric is co-director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.
For two centuries during the Edo Era, Japan cut off most intercourse with the outside world. Though it was not totally secluded, the Shogunate isolated itself from foreign lands under what was retrospectively labeled sakoku (1639-1854), or closed country.
Due to COVID-19, like other governments, Japan has imposed a variety of entry-bans and quarantines for travelers. Japanese actions have been less strict than those of zero-COVID polities such as China and Hong Kong. Even compared to other free societies, such as Australia and New Zealand, Japanese policies were not as harsh.
But looking at most other developed economies, Japan has been on the harder side. In particular, it has made it dreadfully difficult for new foreign employees to take up their positions in the country. It has left would-be overseas students taking online courses at home rather than enjoying Japan. Others have just abandoned their plans to go to school there and moved to places such as South Korea.
The logic of COVID-control decisions will be debated for years to come. Some think that they were too soft. Others wrote that Australia and New Zealand were “two exemplary liberal democracies whose sanity seems to have been undermined over the past two years.”
What is already visible, however, are the consequences of Japan’s approach to the pandemic. There are now two, and soon three, cohorts of young adults interested in Japan who have been denied the opportunity to study and live in the country.
One professor at a top-ranked Japanese university mentioned recently that some of her students were graduating from a two-year master’s program without having set foot in the archipelago. New hires are either teleworking in distant time zones, or electing to find positions somewhere else rather than risk waiting for months and perhaps years in limbo.
Some nations can afford to live off the grid for a few years. If the U.S. or the U.K. had shut themselves down as much as Japan, there would still be hordes of applicants wanting to enroll in their universities.
As the two main English-speaking countries, they have an educational gravitational pull that is several orders of magnitudes greater than Japan’s. Silicon Valley could be off-limits to foreigners for a long time, but as soon as the gates reopen, it would draw in the best and brightest from the planet. The EU attracts far more bright migrants and students than Japan.
Japan, however, does not have the same cachet. It might not be fair, but it is a fact. Not a single of its universities has a brand name recognized beyond its shores. Its language is not a must-know idiom. Japanese businesses want foreign employees, but Japan is nowhere near the top of the list when mobile professionals think of relocating.
Its economy lacks companies with the star power of say Apple or Alphabet. Japan as a major tourist destination is a new development. A few years without visitors from abroad will damage its embryonic international hospitality industry on both the demand and supply sides of the equation. Even if Venice were off-limits for a century, there would still be a long queue of millions of tourists on the day of its reopening.
Moreover, many foreigners in Japan were shocked when the authorities decided that taxpaying foreign residents, including those on the payroll of Japanese employers, could not leave and reenter the country, whereas Japanese citizens could. It took several months before this inequity was remedied, but by then, the damage to Japan’s reputation was irreparable.
Continued harsh limits imposed on close relatives of Japanese residents and hotel quarantines have embittered many foreigners who make Japan their home. These men and women are the best ambassadors for Japan abroad. Japan needs them to convince their friends and relatives that they should consider Japan as a place to work.
They compensate for the weakness of Japan’s international presence and public diplomacy. As far as Americans in Japan are concerned, they help to convince their fellow citizens that Japan is worth defending and dying for. Treating them like undesirable aliens is not helping Tokyo’s constant cries for U.S. help and support.
After a brief sense of crisis following the discovery of omicron variant, many countries soon abandoned emergency restrictions on travel. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, however, has, so far, kept these measures in place, including a near-total entry ban on nonresidents. A minuscule number of international students and a trickle of nonresidents may come in, but for all practical purposes, Tokyo is continuing with its near-zero visa issuance stance.
Japan has no monopoly on illogical and self-defeating errors since the start of COVID-19. It has avoided, for reasons no one seems to fully understand, high levels of severe illnesses and fatalities without lockdowns or mass closures of shops.
None of its leaders advocated bleach injections and no individuals or political parties of any significance have railed against vaccines. But when it comes to its interaction with the outside world, its embrace of neo-sakoku is a recipe for turning Japan into a provincial sideshow and undermining its life insurance, namely the Japan-U.S. Alliance.