Japan expected to reopen border to international students

Universities welcome coming announcement but student advocate warns of damage done by restrictions

November 3, 2021
Man wearing mask on the street at rush hour in Japan
Source: iStock

Japan’s government is expected to announce new border measures that would allow the entry of international students, ending months of uncertainty for thousands of them.

From as soon as 8 November, Tokyo could roll out new travel rules, to be made effective within the month, according to early reports by national media.

The country will then start accepting visas for study abroad, technical training and business, Nikkei Asia reported on 1 November. By October, roughly 370,000 foreigners were waiting for the border to reopen, with students and technical interns making up about 70 per cent of them, according to the report.

On 2 November, in an announcement otherwise sparse on details, a Japanese government official said that the country would make efforts to allow entry by foreign nationals, stressing that it would continue to monitor the situation carefully.

The news came a day after Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida secured victory in a snap election. But despite its apparent green light for foreign travel, the government is proceeding with caution.

A former official from Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) told Times Higher Education that it could be at least a month before the first overseas students reach Japanese soil, even if an announcement is made in the coming week.

He attributed wariness to concern over potential backlash against incoming students if Covid-19 cases spike again. “The government may be afraid [that] public opinion…could easily blame foreigners bringing viruses,” he said.

According to Japan’s NHK news agency, students will be allowed to enter the country “on the condition that the accepting company or university manages their behaviour”.

But with an official announcement with detailed plans from Tokyo expected any day, agencies catering to students have been quick to get a move on paperwork, said Grace Zhu, China branch manager at higher education consultancy Bonard, who has been monitoring student flows to Asia.

“Parents and students are becoming optimistic,” she said, adding that agencies had started encouraging students to prepare their applications to enter the country for April 2022.

But there are still many unknowns, with universities among those anxiously waiting for more details on how a planned reopening could look.

Speaking to THE on 2 November, Kazuo Kuroda, dean in the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University, said he had not yet heard directly from contacts in the government.

But he nonetheless welcomed the expected news. One of the country’s top research institutions and among the largest Japanese host institutions, Waseda has more than 5,000 international students, many of whom have been taking online courses and hoping to enter the country.

“I am sure many of our international students would try to enter to Japan as soon as they are allowed,” said Professor Kuroda.

Davide Rossi, founder of the site EducationIsNotTourism.com, who has been advocating for international students’ return to Japan, expressed optimism about the loosening restrictions, which he estimated would affect more than 147,000 students.

In an online video preceding the news reports on border restrictions easing, he noted that a lot of students had received notice from universities and language schools to prepare their certificate of entry paperwork.

“This never happened before so consistently [from] so many schools…there’s obviously something going on,” he said.

But speaking to THE, Mr Rossi struck a more sombre note, alluding to the damage done by months of uncertainty over whether border controls would ease. “Confidence in the government is beginning to wane,” he said. “But it is not too late to restore it.”


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