Japan’s doors remain closed to most foreign students

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A student hoping to study in Japan calls on the country to ease entry restrictions for foreign nationals during an online press conference held at Kai Japanese Language School in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on Jan. 27.

Japan began welcoming 87 foreign students to the country on Sunday, the first such arrivals since strict rules were enforced in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus. And on Tuesday, it granted permission to enter to 400 more students.

About 147,000 foreign students have obtained permission to study in Japan, but due to the government’s tight border-control measures, the vast majority of them have not yet been granted permission to actually enter the country.

It is feared that Japan’s ongoing entry restrictions — seen as harsher than those imposed abroad — could negatively affect education, scientific research and the economy.

The government is planning to accept more foreign students. However, as the omicron variant of the virus continues to propagate around the globe, it remains uncertain as to when the entry controls can be fully eased.

Frustration and sacrifice

“I’m just so tired of waiting to be allowed into the country,” said Giulia Luzzo, a 27-year-old Italian graduate student at the University of Turin. “The sacrifices involved have been too great.”

Luzzo’s words came during a Jan. 27 online press conference with Japanese media that called on Japan to expeditiously ease its entry regulations. Luzzo had been scheduled to start her research on Japanese literature at Saitama University in spring 2020, but she has since abandoned her plans after being denied admittance for two years.

The government began restricting entry for foreigners in the spring of 2020. Though these constraints were eased for a brief period, new entries from overseas were suspended, in principle, at the end of November last year as the omicron variant gained traction.

In a public opinion survey conducted in December by The Yomiuri Shimbun, 89% of respondents praised the government’s border-control measures.

As a marked easing of restrictions could lead to public criticism of the government, the 87 students approved for entry last month are state-funded foreign students who “have been invited by the state from highly diplomatic or educational viewpoints,” said Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Shinsuke Suematsu.

Some 960 state-funded foreign students are presently waiting to enter the country. It is thought that the 87 newly admitted students — in fields such as chemistry, engineering and Japan-related studies — will graduate or complete their courses in less than one year, following relevant preparations.

Upon admittance to the country, the students will be monitored by their hosting universities, while the education ministry will play a general supervisory role. Supervision has been stepped up, and ministry officials will make regular visits to the hotels where the students are being quarantined to check on their health.

With the 400 students given permission to enter on Tuesday, the ministry has broadened its scope to allow self-financed foreign students into Japan. But due to the spread of the omicron variant, it remains uncertain as to when restrictions can be more significantly slackened.

Universities voice concerns

Japan’s protracted and continuing entry controls are causing signs of strain to show in partnerships between Japanese and foreign universities. In November, a university in California told Osaka University it might be impossible to dispatch students to study in Japan in the coming spring because it saw no prospect for them to be allowed to enter the country.

Since last summer, about 300 Osaka University students have gone abroad to study, but the university has accepted no new overseas exchange students. Normally, exchange programs operate on the principle of fair exchange: Each of two universities accepts an equal number of students from the other, and students are exempted from tuition fees at their host university.

Meanwhile, 260 foreign students are waiting to be admitted to Chiba University. The university has exchange-program agreements with over 400 overseas universities, but there is a growing sense of crisis within the institution. “It might become impossible to dispatch any Japanese students abroad,” a university official said.

Toshiyuki Kono, executive vice president of Kyushu University, underlined the significance of foreign students in the realm of domestic education, saying, “Foreign manpower brings about diversity, which is a source of technological innovation and has a huge educational impact on Japanese students.”

Fears and concerns are spreading in business circles, too. On Jan. 27, Chairman and CEO of Rakuten Group, Inc. Hiroshi Mikitani, who also serves a representative director of the Japan Association of New Economy, made a joint appeal with Kengo Sakurada, chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai), imploring the government “to resume the entry into Japan of foreign manpower, and foreign students in particular, at an early stage. Upon admittance, these individuals should be subject to the same rules and restrictions as returning Japanese citizens.” More than 20% of Rakuten’s employees are foreign nationals.

Speaking at a Jan. 24 press conference, Masakazu Tokura, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), said: “The omicron variant has reached all parts of the country, making [the respective situations] at home and abroad no different. Although inspections at national borders have to be carried out, it’s unrealistic to ban the entry of foreign nationals.”

Possibility of further spread

However, in light of the worldwide spread of the omicron variant, a full-scale easing of entry restrictions could exacerbate the number of infections in Japan.

Since last autumn, Kindai University has dispatched 154 students to the United States. Ninety-three of these students returned to Japan in January. Upon being tested at airports, 15 tested positive for the coronavirus.

Koji Wada, a professor at the International University of Health and Welfare and a scholar on public hygiene, praised the government’s response, saying: “Measures taken following entry into Japan can minimize the risk of infection spreading. By learning from this experience, admittance [of foreign nationals] should be increased in stages, even if it’s only a step at a time.

“With the April spring semester drawing near, the government should as early as possible inform universities and foreign students of its outlook regarding possible easing of entry controls.”