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No Entry - unless you’re an athlete

Image credit: Getty Images

Japan has imposed one of the strictest entry bans globally since the beginning of the pandemic, but while scientists and students are stranded abroad, thousands of athletes and Olympic staff are due to enter the country.

As thousands of Olympic athletes plan to visit, Japan’s Covid-19 entry ban leaves researchers and students stranded.  

Twenty players and ten staff members of the Australian women’s softball team arrived in Japan on 1 June ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, which are set to begin on 23 July. The team is among the first to enter Japan, with thousands of Olympic competitors and about 80,000 related staff expected to arrive for the event over the coming days and weeks.

On the same day the Australian team entered, local media reported that Japan’s government was planning to further tighten its entry restrictions, which are already among the strictest in the world. The border enforcement measures implemented by Japan to curb the spread of Covid-19 have left thousands of non-Japanese people stranded abroad in constant limbo about when they will be able to return. Among them are many researchers and students, and people who have lived in the country for years.

Japan first introduced an entry ban in March 2020. The ban includes foreign nationals with permanent resident status in Japan and long-term visa holders working in the country, including their spouses and families. That ban was briefly lifted in late October before new Covid-19 variants led the government to reinstate its border restrictions at the beginning of January.

The strict entry ban stands in stark contrast to the tens of thousands of people allowed to enter Japan as part of the Olympics. Critics ask why people with a legitimate reason to enter, such as research, studying or long-term employment, are still kept out while athletes are allowed in for a short-term event.

Aside from negative impacts this has had on lives, it has also started to affect research institutions and universities in Japan.  

“It has been 14 or 15 months that nobody has been able to leave Japan and come back. For some people that are very established in Japan and have family here and kids, that is probably OK, but for some that come here in the short to mid-term...” says Piero Carninci before trailing off. Carninci is a deputy director at the Riken Centre for Integrative Medical Sciences in Yokohama and head of the Genomics Research Centre, Functional Genomics Programme at the Human Technopole research institute in Milan. “People coming here for a postdoctoral research position for two or three years are suddenly faced with the decision to either leave the country to see their families or to stay here until who knows when,” he adds.

The entry ban isn’t only affecting foreign researchers already in the country, however, but also prospective new hires and students from abroad. Carninci says his lab only hired five new people this year, all of whom came from within Japan. “This exchange we were used to having: getting ‘fresh brains’ […] We have been trying to recruit for many different positions. At the end of the day, we ended up hiring people that were already in Japan.”

Riken is one of Japan’s largest scientific research institutes and conducts studies across the entire range of natural sciences, including biology, neuroscience, quantum physics and computer science. The Designated National Research and Development Institute was founded in 1917 and employs about 3,000 scientists, of which around 20 per cent are non-Japanese. This puts Riken far above the average in Japan in terms of internationalisation. According to the institute’s website, the two largest groups of foreign researchers come from China and South Korea. At the same time, there are many from the USA, India, and Europe. The majority of Riken’s annual budget of nearly 100 billion yen (about £640m) in 2019 came from the government.  

About a decade ago and partially due to facing a rapid population decline, Japan set itself a target to internationalise its research institutions and universities, setting a target of 30 per cent that was later lowered to 20 per cent. Most Japanese research institutes and universities are still far from that target, with Riken being one exception. The government also set a goal of increasing the number of foreign students in Japan to 300,000 by 2020 and having 10 Japanese universities rank among the top 100 universities in the world by 2023, according to local media reports.

“Here at Riken Integrative Medical Sciences Centre and particularly in the division of genomics medicine, which is the one I run, we are quite international, we have been internationalising our labs and centres over the years,” Carninci says, adding that at times up to 60 per cent of the research personnel were from abroad.

“We have been working very hard to make our institute more international, and this year has reversed everything,” he says, adding that he doesn’t have any official numbers on how many researchers were hired from abroad in the whole of the country since the beginning of the pandemic and the start of Japan’s entry restrictions. “I can talk about five positions in my group, and I can tell you that from the 14 or 15 PIs [principal investigators] that I’m working with, no one has taken anyone from abroad this year, which is very unusual.”

Carninci says the restrictions have caused months-long delays in filling posts, which in turn delayed the research projects.

His research group was trying to fill one position for months but eventually realised it wouldn’t be able to acquire a visa for foreign applicants. “In the end, we changed the title for the position, and we got some [domestic] agency staff,” he says. Filling the position took them more than half a year, and ultimately hiring someone through an agency was also quite costly, he says. He estimates that, on average, it has taken about three months longer to fill a position while at the same time having the disadvantage of a smaller pool of candidates to choose from.

The lack of international hiring is also impacting gender diversity at the institute, he notes. “Of course, with international recruitment, we also have more female scientists coming on average because, in Japan, there are not so many female students that go to graduate school and go into this very competitive arena,” he adds.

Japan’s strict entry restrictions come on top of an already difficult situation for international students and researchers. The graduation of one of Carninci’s PhD students was delayed by nearly five months because she couldn’t do the necessary research to publish her final paper while the lab was closed between April and July last year. “She was supposed to get a PhD and go for a postdoc in the US. But that was gone because the lab there couldn’t wait,” he says.

A preliminary report published in March by Jacques Wels, a sociologist and research fellow at the Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, and affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge at the time, aimed to assess the impact of Japan’s travel bans on migrants’ health, quality of life, wellbeing and financial health. In the survey, many of the 425 respondents said that the delay and uncertain future had negatively affected their financial situation and mental health. About 88 per cent of respondents rated the Japanese government’s official communication about the travel ban as either poor or very poor. Around 54 per cent said that their biggest concern was uncertainty about their professional future.

Two students, Giulia Luzzo and Filippo Pedretti, who say they represent hundreds of researchers and students currently stranded abroad, held a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo at the end of May.  

“The entry ban has dramatically affected thousands of foreign students and workers putting their lives on hold for over a year, in particular as universities had to cancel several scholarships and up to three semesters of exchange programmes,” said Pedrettie, who is a student at Italy’s University of Padua, and is still waiting to enter Japan for a master’s degree. Even though Japanese universities have accepted them, Japanese embassies are refusing to issue visas to foreign students, he added.

“Such measures were understandable last year, of course, but nowadays look outdated when compared to other countries [...] who started accepting foreign students long ago, following the necessary safety steps. Japan is virtually the only country still maintaining such tight border control restrictions,” he said, adding that only China and Australia have similarly strict immigration policies.

“We know the Olympics are controversial at the moment, with many people claiming they should be cancelled or postponed. However, as foreign students we do not express any official view about whether we think they should be held or not. It is just a matter of interest to us that athletes and Olympics-related people benefit from special exemptions, such as being allowed into the country while we are not,” he said at the press conference.

Pedretti said the students didn’t expect to be allowed to enter any time soon but that they are hoping the Japanese government would at least give some kind of schedule for when it plans to start easing restrictions. “We are surprised about the detailed plans that Japan has for the Olympics, often stating that cancellation is not an option. No words, on the contrary, are said about when we are supposed to finally go to Japan,” he said. “Exchange programmes need months of preparation and universities are already cancelling their exchange programmes for next year because the government doesn’t provide them any sort of schedule.”

Luzzo and Pedretti represent a group called ‘Students, workers, spouses stranded outside Japan’ that recently sent an open letter signed by dozens of students and researchers to an EU delegation in Japan and other diplomatic representatives of European countries. The letter urged EU countries to make further efforts to persuade Japan to ease the current entry restrictions. Signatories also briefly explained their situations.

“I should have moved in August 2020 to work as a researcher at Riken; nine months later, I am still in Italy waiting,” wrote one person. Another said: “I got an offer for a postdoctoral position for a government-funded project (AI-related). Finished my PhD sooner than intended, quit the company I was working for, and prepared the documentation needed, which arrived late (January), being unable to get the visa.”

“I wish the EU would make clear to Japan that opening borders for students and workers is not only the ethically sound thing to do, but also benefits their research and economy in the long run,” wrote another.

The group also met with the European Union’s Ambassador to Japan, Patricia Flor, who said that while Japan is, of course, interested in attracting researchers and students from abroad, the government’s current priority is to fight the pandemic. “Those who used to live in Japan, or want to come here, not for tourism, but have a serious objective [...] for them, it should be possible to come,” she said in a meeting, according to a summary provided by the group. “I have used this argument many times, saying to the Japanese ‘You are hurting yourself, you are saying you have a declining demography and a declining population, you have problems in how you can maintain your services sector, your employment, your research; you need innovative creative [people]’,” she said. “How many of those who are now being turned back will turn their back, finally really on Japan and not reconsider to [come]?”

The strict entry ban is affecting the research community and students but also businesses in the country in general. A survey of 383 German companies conducted by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan in June 2020 found that roughly 80 per cent of businesses said the entry restrictions posed a significant burden. An equal percentage said it was also threatening their revenue and profits. More than one-third said they expect a loss in revenue solely due to the restrictions.

“Concerns voiced in the survey indicate that the entry ban has become a burden not only for German companies in Japan, but for the Japanese business community as well. The two economies are so closely interlinked that the ability to bring in experts from Germany is essential to support Japanese business partners in their manufacturing. With the entry ban enforced, Japanese customers who rely on German machinery for smooth production are increasingly at risk,” the German business group wrote in a press release.

In August 2020, the American, Australian and New Zealand, and British Chambers of Commerce, together with the European Business Council, said in a letter they were concerned about the impact of Japan’s immigration authorities’ limitations on the entry of non-Japanese nationals.

“We remain disappointed and confused by the limitations on the return of long-term residents of Japan [...] This policy is contrary to the treatment Japan receives from other G7 and other leading countries who treat long-term foreign residents equally to citizens on health matters,” they said. “We know of no evidence that suggests that foreign long-term residents of Japan entering from abroad pose any greater health risk locally than Japanese nationals who do the same.”

Many foreign long-term residents of Japan feel left hanging by the government. “The travel restrictions imposed by the Japanese government in different forms since 2020 have had me reconsider any idea of settling down permanently in Japan,” says Giovanni Pascarella, a research scientist working at Riken Yokohama Institute, who moved to Japan in September 2010. “Having invested 10 years in this country, Japan was naturally on my list of places to settle down for good. Then Covid-19 hit, and with it came the first travel ban that targeted all foreigners with no exceptions for foreign residents, cruelly separating couples and families, senselessly interrupting lives and, worst of all, with little to no scientific basis.”

Pascarella concludes: “Each day of that travel ban made it more and more difficult to justify efforts to succeed and integrate in a country that had proved able to cut the wire on foreign residents for political convenience without hesitation.”

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