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‘Cruel Japan’: Closed borders ignite furor from those shut out

  • February 14, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 4:08 a.m.
  • English Press

KOYA JIBIKI, Nikkei staff writer


JAKARTA — Kenji Kanasugi, the Japanese ambassador to Indonesia, posted photos on Instagram of him eating lunch together with students at a local university dining hall.


Soon after the country’s ‘Instafamous’ diplomat uploaded the image on Jan. 22, an anonymous user fired off an angry reply in Japanese: “Enough with the one-sided entry restrictions!”


The Japanese government has maintained strict limits on entries by foreign arrivals for roughly two consecutive years as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, a strategy that helped keep the country’s infection numbers relatively low. But for those who have been waiting for Japan to open, the restrictions have held them back from advancing their goals in business and education. Now, they are airing their frustrations online and elsewhere.

Social media sites have become a venue for online protests against the seal


ed borders with hashtags such as #japaentryban trending among other rallying cries. The words are incorporated in a sign Indonesian college student Halimah posted on Twitter Jan. 28.


“Let us pursue our dream!” a cartoon figure of Halimah says in the sign.


Halimah, an aspiring tour guide, planned to study abroad in Kobe. But the closed borders have kept her waiting in Indonesia for approximately a year.


That same day, a Lithuanian student protested in front of the Japanese Embassy in the Baltic state. He said he paid to study in Japan but is forced to take online lessons very late at night, maintaining a schedule that has taken a toll on his body.


Halimah, an Indonesian student and an aspiring tour guide, has been waiting nearly a year to study abroad in Kobe.

Jade Barry based in Chicago, U.S., helped launched the online group Stop Japan’s Ban last month. Members have organized protests in front of Japanese consulates.


“Almost every country now has somebody on the ground working toward the reopening of Japan’s border,” Barry said.


There are over 370,000 people unable to enter Japan despite holding residency status, Nikkei reported in October. The contingent includes international students, technical trainees and foreign nationals related to residents in Japan.


One Indonesia woman who worked for a Japanese company in Tokyo lost her father last summer. She ultimately decided against going home to attend his funeral because she was warned that she could potentially be refused reentry, losing her job in the process.


“I never imagined that the situation would affect me so gravely,” she said.


People outside of Japan strongly question its port-of-entry policies because they feel the rules are illogical. In November, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida decided suspended new entries of foreigners, and indicated that the measure will stay in place until the end of the month.


But other countries are relaxing border restrictions despite the latest coronavirus surge fueled by the spread of the omicron variant. This would indicate Japan’s policies go against the diplomatic principle of reciprocity.


Of particular concern is the growing disillusionment with Japan among nonresidents whose future plans and quality of life have been disrupted by the country’s anomalous border restrictions.


“Japan is going to ruin the life and future of hundreds of thousands of international students staying in their homes hoping to go to Japan to resume their studies,” said one poster on Twitter.


Another tweeted, “From cool Japan to cruel Japan.”


Christopher LaFleur, an adviser to the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, urged the government to relax entry restrictions during a virtual appearance at gathering hosted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on Wednesday.


“Quite frankly, the current travel restrictions on nonresidents can only create doubt about Japan as a reliable, long-term partner for foreign business,” said LaFleur.


A growing number of diplomatic missions around the world is moving to petition Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for improved measures. Ever since the government toughened entry rules, there has been a trend in some Southeast Asian countries to study abroad in South Korea, according to a source with knowledge on the matter.


South Korea does not impose entry restrictions to the same degree as Japan.


International students, workers and technical trainees are those who have come to support Japan as the country faces a declining population.


“Japan is not the only choice for work or schooling among foreigners,” said Yusron Ihza Mahendra, a former Indonesian ambassador to Japan. “I understand the need for the port-of-entry policies, but too tough of a response would lead to a loss of global competitiveness.”


A staffer at a Japanese Embassy in Europe who urged the Foreign Ministry to change course sees political motivations behind its approach.


“No matter what we say, it won’t change,” the staffer said.


With upper house elections coming in the summer, some expect Kishida’s administration to maintain the stringent border controls for now to keep up its approval rating. In seeking a temporary boost in the polls, it may do more lasting harm to Japan’s international image.


Additional reporting by Ismi Damayanti.

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