Cassie Lord, a freelance writer based in Tsukuba, Japan, was planning to spend Christmas in her native UK. She hasn’t been home for almost three years and was hoping to spend time with a family member who recently had heart surgery.
Now its plans are in disarray after Tokyo reinstated strict border controls in response to the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
âWhen Japan stopped allowing visitors and students, I started to worry,â Lord said. ” I do not know if [the government] will suddenly revoke the changes, or suddenly make them worseâ¦ I don’t want to get stuck in the UK. “
Since the World Health Organization named Omicron a “variant of concern,” countries around the world have invoked strict entry protocols. But true to their recent form, those from Japan are among the most radical and severe.
As of Monday, all non-resident aliens have been banned, overturning an easing of restrictions for business travelers and foreign students weeks after its introduction.
Authorities also briefly banned all inbound flight bookings before turning back on Thursday, fearing it would prevent Japanese nationals from returning home. The mandatory quarantine has been extended to 14 days for returning residents, regardless of their vaccination status.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida described the restrictions as “temporary and exceptional measures that we are taking for security reasons until there is clearer information about the Omicron variant”.
The harsh response has been hailed by some pundits as Kishida’s most decisive decision since taking office, giving the new leader a potential boost among an electoral base not fully convinced of his ability to lead.
But others see Japan retreating to “Sakoku” thought, reflecting the country’s policy of isolation between the 17th and 19th centuries. As other G7 countries rolled back restrictions throughout 2021 amid rising vaccination rates, Japan has kept tight border control despite fewer than 19,000 deaths from COVID-19 and vaccinating more than 75% of its total population.
Border controls during the first waves of the virus drew criticism for isolating foreigners, while several cases have arisen of officials attributing – directly or indirectly – the spread of infections to non-natives.
The Itako Health Center in Ibaraki Prefecture gained notoriety among foreign residents earlier this year when it sent a document urging the community to be aware that there were “many patients infected with COVID who probably caught it by strangers “.
Last year, Taro Aso, a former prime minister, made headlines when he applauded the âmindoâ or cultural values ââof the Japanese people for overcoming the first wave of the virus.
Japan’s border controls have been a source of anxiety for residents and foreign businesses throughout the pandemic.
“The most obvious effect [of the controls] is that foreign and domestic companies will not be able to bring in essential personnel, âMichael Mroczek, president of the European Business Council of Japan, told Al Jazeera.
âThis means that positions may go unfilled or that senior management will have to run the business from outside of Japan. “
Davide Rossi, co-founder of the education company Go! Go! Nihon, told Al Jazeera that the mental toll has been particularly severe for international students wishing to study in Japan.
âI continually receive messages from students who have lost two years of their lives due to the continuing ban,â Rossi said. “They are unable to recoup their tuition or lost time, and are often very depressed and without funds to study elsewhere.”
The WHO has called for “rational” measures to combat the new variant, which some scientists say may be more transmissible or escape vaccines more easily than other strains, but has criticized blanket travel bans.
Asked about Japan’s latest ban at a press conference on Wednesday, Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergency program, said he found it “difficult to understand” from a scientific point of view .
“Does the virus read your passport?” Ryan said. “Does the virus know your nationality or where you legally reside?” “
Stephen Nagy, a visiting scholar at the Japan Institute of International Affairs think tank, told Al Jazeera he believed the restrictions were “cautious” until there was more information on the variant. .
But he admitted that Tokyo‘s reluctance to reopen had been exacerbated by its relative lack of exposure to the virus.
âWith COVID rates so low at this point, it seems politically impossible not to take an ultra-conservative approach to border control for fear of spreading the new variant,â he said.
For people like Tania Sofia, a Portuguese national living in the UK who hopes to enter Japan with her Japanese fiance, uncertainty is the only constant.
Current rules state that only those with a return permit can travel to Japan, while the Foreign Ministry’s website is “unclear on visas,” she told Al Jazeera.
“[Once married] my goal is to get a short term special circumstances visa at the Japanese Embassy in London, so that I can return to Japan with him in January, âsaid Sofia. âBut with this new ban, I don’t know if that will affect visa applicationsâ¦ Of course, we don’t want to go our separate ways; we want to start our life together.