Yanita Antoko has been waiting for over a year in Indonesia to join her husband in Japan. She has her papers and has closed her business selling homemade spice mixes, but remains shut out.
The 30-year-old is one of more than 370,000 people left in limbo by Japan’s coronavirus border rules, which bar almost all new arrivals and are the strictest in the G7.
Even as other countries with tough virus restrictions like Australia reopen, Japan still bans tourists and business visitors as well as new foreign workers, students and their dependents.
“It’s really, really upsetting me,” said Antoko, whose Indonesian husband works as an engineer in central Japan.
“When you get married, of course you want to have children. That’s the main reason we want to live together.”
But there is no clarity on when that might be possible.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has extended the current measures, which polls show are popular with the public, until at least late February.
That leaves people like 28-year-old Santosh from Nepal in an agonising position.
He holds a business degree from Japan, speaks Japanese, and has been offered a job in the international marketing division of a Japanese company. But he has been stuck in Nepal since 2020, waiting for permission to move.
“If I cancel my plans to work in Japan, then my six years of studies there will have been for nothing,” Santosh, who asked to be identified without his surname, told AFP.
“So I’m waiting and waiting.”
Others like French student Leeloo Bos are facing similar difficulties in keeping their dreams alive.
The 21-year-old, whose fiance is in Japan, is attending her Japanese classes at night due to the time difference.
“It’s a nightmare,” she told AFP, describing language lessons that end at 4:00 am.
And while she still hopes to build a career promoting Japanese bands, she said being apart from her Japanese fiance left her “feeling empty, as though half my soul had been removed.”
– ‘Out of touch’ –
Academics and business leaders warn Japan is losing out with its intransigent border rules.
“Expertise is declining” because companies cannot bring in foreign workers, said Michael Mroczek, president of the European Business Council in Japan.
With infections already spreading in Japan, the restrictions “appear to some extent irrational,” he told AFP.
“It seems to be almost xenophobia.”
Japan has recorded a relatively low 18,500 deaths during the pandemic, despite never imposing a full lockdown or pursuing a “zero-Covid” policy like neighbouring China.
A foreign ministry official defended the “stringent (border) measures” as helping explain the “significant difference between Japan and other countries” in the number of infections involving the virus’s Omicron variant.
But in Japan’s business world, there is frustration, with the head of the powerful Keidanren business lobby on Monday comparing the rules to Japan’s self-imposed isolation from the 17th to 19th century.
The measures are “out of touch with reality,” said Masakazu Tokura, urging Kishida to reconsider.
In an open letter to the prime minister last week, scholars involved in Japan-US exchange also warned the entry ban “undercuts Japan’s diplomatic objectives and status as an international leader.”
– Students looking elsewhere –
Davide Rossi, an Italian entrepreneur living in Japan, campaigns for the nearly 150,000 students official figures show are stuck outside the country.
“They’ve been in this limbo for two years but still don’t have a timeline or a plan, which is the very minimum the government should give them,” he told AFP.
He described frustration as those shut out watched tens of thousands of foreign athletes, officials and media enter Japan for the Olympics last year.
Students are “100 percent willing” to test and quarantine like returning citizens and residents, said Rossi.
But so far, there have been limited humanitarian exemptions, and just 87 government-sponsored students allowed into the country.
With no end in sight, many students are now looking elsewhere, including South Korea.
Hana, a first-year PhD veterinary science student from Iran, is studying remotely with a Japanese university, but she can’t complete her essential lab research from afar.
She has reluctantly set herself a deadline of April to get to Japan.
After that, “I will consider another country, maybe Canada or the US,” the 29-year-old said.
“If we can’t enter, most of us will give up on Japan”.
by Etienne Balmer and Katie Forster