Yoshihide Suga Tokyo 2020 July 1

Covid-19 Pandemic: The Dire Straits of Foreign Nationals living in Japan

⏱ 7 minutes

Japan has been successful so far in controlling the coronavirus 🦠 outbreak on its territory. The archipelago can boast one of the lowest number of cases and casualties among the developed countries, and its handling of the outbreak was even praised by WHO.

Despite ominous predictions, the low excess mortality rate proved Japan’s good management of the crisis, and may convince future tourists looking for a safe destination to choose Japan over the United States, Brazil or Russia for their trips.

Truth be told, the country has been experiencing an uptick in the number of cases detected since the end of June in Tokyo. However, so-called specialized Medias relaying this information often omit to mention that the number of tested persons is rising as well and that casualty rate is still very low.

This result comes at a high cost, as Japanese government took some actions that may seem disproportionate from overseas, especially when resorting to a total closure of the borders as in the Tokugawa Era, targeting exclusively foreign nationals.

This nonsensical inflexibility has created a difficult situation for expatriates who settled in Japan, and a growing number of them have come to feel trapped in the country while Shinzo Abe’s government delays taking any practical decision to relax entry restrictions.

Foreign residents in Japan are banned from re-entry after traveling abroad...

Foreign residents in Japan must naturally comply with strict regulations, starting from holding a visa, of temporary residency for most of them.
If the Japanese Immigration Services generously allowed an exceptional temporary validity prolongation for some visas, in the meantime, the expatriate status in Japan has nonetheless become a kind of golden prison.

Foreign embassies may have taken up Japanese government’s small easing on re-entry (the very strict re-entry conditions were slightly modified at the end of June, aimed at medical emergencies or orders to appear in court, but not implemented in reality), the truth is that in July 2020, despite the reopening of Schengen area to 14 countries including Japan, there was no reciprocity and it was still almost impossible to a national of one of the 129 (!) countries on Japan’s red list to cross its border.

Foreign nationals with a Japanese spouse, even if they had a permanent resident status and / or they payed taxes in Japan for over 30 years (local taxes, income taxes, healthcare and retirement plans… and even if they have employees in Japan) are gaijin by nature and literally "persons from outside". Expatriates are reminded of this fact the hard way.

Some situations are nonsensical and even quite cruel:

  • Foreign nationals who go to their native country for holidays with their half-Japanese children this summer will be forbidden re-entry in Japan, but their children will be free to come back to their Japanese parent.
  • If a foreign national must attend funerals in their native country, they will not be permitted to re-enter Japan afterward (as in this disheartening story).
  • Many students who spent February-March holidays in their home country could not come back to attend class for their second semester. In worst cases some risk to be expelled from their school or universities.
  • As for bi-national couples, non-Japanese spouses are "stuck" outside Japan without being able to meet the loved one for more than four months now.

Japan is the only G7 country to ban their long term and permanent foreign residents’ re-entry, a new negative signal on already not so good immigration handling records.
National Medias in Japan don’t easily tackle the subject much and most Japanese are not aware of the situation. On the contrary, Medias tend to reinforce basic discriminations against foreigners, in considering they are only short-term residents.
These double standard re-entry rules also seem the best way to discourage foreign investment and talents in Japan.

In mid-July, following international diplomatic pressures, the Japanese government announced working on a re-entry procedure aimed at some foreign residents, to implement from August, under the conditions of:

  • Taking a PCR test upon arrival and observing a 14-days self-quarantine
  • Having left Japan before April 3…

Some may see their visa expire before they even can depart for Japan, or have their authorized length of stay greatly shortened. It is the case of people who obtained a working-holiday visa in early March. The working-holiday visa is of a one year duration and can be obtained once in a lifetime only. Will this visa benefit from an extension? Nothing could be less certain.

In the meantime, Japanese nationals, even if they come back from a country severely hit by coronavirus, will have no problem to enter the country, and they will be welcomed with a bow. The reason is simple: Japanese immigration service cannot forbid Japanese people from returning in their own country.

...And impoverished due to a slugglish activity of which they are the second best...

As everywhere in the world, Japanese economy, despite a non-restrictive lockdown, marked a visible slowdown and a drop in investments. The logic consequence is a less dynamic job market and a drastically slimed down number of baito (part-time jobs) available, with a priority given to Japanese nationals over foreign residents.

Tourism industry is naturally one of the most impacted and it’s a wonder why the Japanese government has not provided further help to it yet, except for the "Go To Travel" campaign aimed at domestic tourism.

Many of the expatriates working in the tourism industry already had a complementary job to reduce variations of income due to touristic seasonal peaks, which are always happening in April, August and October.

Many of them already worked as translators and / or language teachers to secure a regular income. As of today, many are considering a definitive change of career due to the situation bogging down.

As a matter of fact, freelance workers are the most vulnerable, despite Japanese government’s financial help:

  • ¥100,000 Yens (~US$635) for each resident in Japan, to be distributed from the beginning of summer;
  • Up to one additional million Yens (~US$6,351) for every declared freelance worker able to prove a loss of sales revenues in spring 2020 compared to spring 2019.

Employees with a contract (shain) benefit, of course, from a better protection. They however constitute a minority among expatriates in Japan.

...meanwhile, some are happy to enjoy Japan without tourists, to the point of being condescending...

On the other hand, some foreign nationals living in Japan showed an unexpected negative attitude toward their fellow citizens who could not visit the country, despite the fact that they also were affected by official instructions preventing them from traveling between prefectures for weeks and even months, and that many attractions had reduced their activity and even closed during the outbreak’s peak (which is considered past, as Tokyo DisneySea and Ghibli Museum are finally to reopen).

Mindless comments like "How great to enjoy sakura 🌸 without tourists!" or "I hope borders will stay closed for a long time!", flourished over the last months, even in our community space Kotaete and our Facebook page, where trolls trolled to their hearts’ contents.

The truth is, people are really eager to go (or return) to Japan. They are impatient to board the first plane ✈️ flying to their dream country and groan against Japanese government’s extreme and almost nonsensical prudence.

Japan’s xenophobic trends were exposed with Carlos Ghosn’s nasty episode in late 2018, and expectations were high that Japan could fight them.

Japan’s National Tourism Organization itself is hoping for the best, without hint of irony (or not), in a promotional video whose motto are:

  • "Hope lights the way"
  • "Beyond the clouds, there is always light"

Patience and time are necessary. Japan is a destination travelers choose out of interest, where tourism and travel industry, since the 2000s and 2010s successive campaigns and the organization of the Olympic Games 🏅, have become an increasing part of the country’s GDP (near 10%) and is thus not negligible.

A lot happened over the last months and prudence is key, especially about short-term previsions, but one thing is sure: we will soon find Japan the same as it was in 2019! Hopefully this crisis will soon be nothing but a bad memory.

Updated on November 20, 2020 Le tiraillement des expatriés au Japon en temps de Covid