Cautious optimism on Japan’s border reopening

Students and faculty welcome eased measures but remain wary, emphasising need for higher caps on daily arrivals

February 18, 2022
Source: iStock

At last, there is good news for foreign students waiting to enter Japan: from March, the government will again allow them into the country.

On 17 February, Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida announced that the country plans to begin easing its border restrictions soon, allowing up to 5,000 entrants per day – up from 3,500 in November.

The announcement, which comes after months of lobbying by students and educators, is a welcome one. But many onlookers are wary, still smarting from Japan’s recent pivots in border policy.

“The news is positive for what we know now,” said Giulia Luzzo, a master’s student at the University of Turin waiting to enter Japan, who participated in a live panel watching the announcement.

While she described her current outlook as “cautiously optimistic”, her doubts were apparent.

“Hopefully this time the borders will not shut down after two weeks or even after a month,” she said, alluding to the last time Japan’s borders reopened.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Matthew Wilson, dean and president of the Tokyo-based Temple University Japan Campus – the oldest and largest foreign university branch in the country – echoed the sentiment.

“As you might imagine, we are excited about the prospect of Japan’s new entry restrictions being relaxed. At the same time, there is a considerable amount of scepticism given what happened late last year,” he said.

In November, Tokyo cracked open the door to foreign students for the first time since the pandemic began. But just weeks later, amid fears of the omicron variant, the government pivoted, once more sealing Japan’s border. By February it had let in just a few dozen foreign students on government scholarships – leaving an estimated 147,000 waiting.

Now, the country appears to be on the path to opening once again. But many questions remain over the details.

Filippo Pedretti, a master’s student at the University of Padua and Ca’ Foscari University of Venice said “now of course the problems are the procedures and the cap”, he said, referring to the daily entrance limit. “We will have to see how fast the cap will be raised and how fast the procedures will be.”

Like the students, Professor Wilson voiced concern over potential limitations around the daily entry cap, saying that “while we sincerely appreciate the efforts to reopen the borders, we strongly encourage the government to streamline student visa processing and quickly open its doors to more overseas students” with priority for those currently enrolled in university courses.

“With a backlog of nearly 150,000 students potentially waiting to enter Japan, it will take months to bring these future contributors into the country if only 5,000 travellers are allowed to enter Japan each day,” said Professor Wilson, adding, “we hope that the government will quickly increase the cap of travellers to 10,000 or more per day”.

Professor Wilson also urged Tokyo to put more faith in institutions, including Temple University, which he said has demonstrated it is capable of preventing the spread of Covid-19: “Universities hosting international students can play an integral role in ensuring that safety measures are met for the increased number of entrants.”

While hopeful, he remains cautious that another government turnaround “could happen at any point”. For now, his own institution will seek to get students on to Japanese soil as soon as possible, he said.

“It is our advice to our students that they enter Japan as soon they receive permission to enter just in case there is another abrupt change in policy or approach.”

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