Japan’s Locked Borders Shake the Trust of Its Foreign Workers

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TOKYO — When Jeff Mazziotta, a director of a nonprofit wildlife conservation organization, left Japan for South Africa in early March, he planned to spend a month training park rangers on emergency field medicine before returning to Tokyo.

Nearly five months later, Mr. Mazziotta is still stuck abroad. He is one of nearly 100,000 foreign residents of Japan who have been prevented from re-entering the country since April under its stringent coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

Japan’s rules, which stand out for making permanent and long-term residents ineligible for travel privileges granted to citizens, have left Mr. Mazziotta and many others in a difficult bind.

He has been forced to rely on a friend for financial support because he has little cash and no access to his Japanese bank account. His office in Japan, where he works as an English teacher to supplement his nonprofit work, put him on unpaid leave, and he has been unable to pay the rent on his Tokyo apartment.

“How am I going to recover from four months of lost pay and the bills that have been building up?” Mr. Mazziotta, an American citizen, said during a video chat in late July. Foreign residents who feel abandoned, he added, are “questioning the time and energy they spent building a life in Japan.”

Japan, a country known for its hospitality but also for casting a sometimes wary eye on its foreign residents, has been promoting itself as the premier Asian destination for global capital and talent, with an eye on wooing financial firms fleeing Hong Kong. But its treatment of foreign residents during the pandemic has undercut that message and shaken the trust of the country’s international community.

The restrictions have provoked loud protests from foreign businesses and residents in Japan. Executives at major international firms say they are rethinking their ties to the country, including how its handling of foreigners could hinder business continuity in an already uncertain time.

ImageMr. Mazziotta in Limpopo Province, South Africa, in March.
Credit…Cassandra Zona

In response, Japan has said it will ease some of the re-entry rules to gradually allow those like Mr. Mazziotta who have been trapped abroad to return to the country. But the changes do not apply to everyone: As many as 17,000 long-term residents of Japan could remain stuck outside the country, according to government data.

For many, the damage is done: The restrictions have split up families, hurt careers and caused students to miss months of school. Some of those stranded outside the country have been saddled with mountains of debt as they continue to pay taxes and rents on homes in Japan while also bearing the costs of being abroad.

The ban has also affected the 2.5 million foreigners who remain in Japan. Many have faced agonizing decisions over whether to leave to care for a dying parent, grieve the loss of a loved one or reunite with a spouse or child, knowing that doing so may make it impossible to return.

“If you’re thinking about setting up your business in a place that is as safe and predictable as possible, Japan certainly has that in its favor,” said Christopher LaFleur, the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

But “the policy in terms of travel has de facto discriminated against the foreign national residents of Japan,” he said, adding that it “certainly is going to weigh on people’s calculus in the months ahead.”

Japan is far from the only country to tighten its borders to control the spread of the virus, with many nations restricting or even stopping short-term travel for business and tourism. All told, Japan has banned entry from 146 countries, including places, like New Zealand and Taiwan, that appear to have eradicated the virus.

Both New Zealand and Taiwan allow long-term residents to travel freely, requiring only a quarantine period upon arrival. Japan, by contrast, is the only member of the Group of 7 industrialized nations to restrict travel by foreign residents while allowing its citizens to come and go as they please.

Japanese officials have said the restrictions on foreign residents are necessary to protect the country from the larger-scale outbreaks abroad and to avoid overwhelming the capacity of airports to test travelers for infection.

More than six months into the crisis, Japan can test only about 33,000 people a day — far fewer than nearly all of its peer countries. Around 3,000 of those tests have been reserved for the country’s international airports — administered to both Japanese and foreign travelers — with plans to increase the number to about 10,000 in September.

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Credit…Kimimasa Mayama/EPA, via Shutterstock

Long-term residents have generally been unable to re-enter Japan since April 3. Those who have sought to leave after that date are allowed to return only if they fall into one of a handful of special categories, including “humanitarian” exemptions allowing them to care for a sick relative or attend a parent’s funeral.

But the guidelines are ill defined, and even for those who would seem to meet the requirements, return is not guaranteed. Before leaving the country, travelers must sign a document acknowledging that they may not be allowed to return. The final decision rests with the immigration agent who greets them at the airport.

Julie Sergent, a consultant in the hospitality industry, made three unsuccessful attempts to leave the country to spend time with her family after her father’s death.

She said that in late July, a month after her most recent attempt, officials told her that her situation did not qualify for re-entry, questioning why she would still need to grieve with her family when so much time had passed since her father’s funeral.

“I promote Japan; I want the country to do well,” she said. But, she added, “if this situation drags on too long, I might take the decision to leave Japan and move to a country where I have more rights.”

Immigration officials said they could not comment about individual cases.

The travel rules have also made it harder for many people to do business. Mark Borer, a permanent resident of Japan, where he has lived for 25 years, owns a small plastics recycling company in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, that employs some 20 people, including six workers from Vietnam. He also has a real estate business in the United States.

The restrictions have hampered both ventures, he said in a recent phone call, noting that he and his employees alike had been unable to travel for either business or personal matters since April, when Japan briefly declared a national emergency.

“I really love the country, and I’ve been here half my life,” he said, but “it’s a punch in the gut.”

If the restrictions are not lifted in the next few months, he said, “you’re forced to think maybe we need to end up selling or closing down the business here.”

It’s not just foreign-owned businesses that have been affected. Japanese construction companies, said Gordon Hatton, co-chairman of the real estate committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, have become increasingly reliant on foreign workers to fulfill a range of functions from manual labor to structural engineering.

If foreign employees “have to leave for some personal reason and they can’t come back,” he said, “that’s a huge waste for the Japanese companies as well, not just these individuals, so it has an impact on the bigger economy.”

Aware of foreign residents’ concerns, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last month that Japan would loosen some of the rules. On Wednesday, immigration officials said at a news conference that they had begun readmitting those who left before the start of the restrictions in April.

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Credit…Issei Kato/Reuters

But even as they moved to loosen restrictions, officials added 17 countries to the re-entry ban list and instituted a rule requiring that travelers take a coronavirus test and receive a negative result no more than 72 hours before departing for Japan. That may be impossible for residents who are stuck in countries where tests are in short supply or results come slowly.

The Asahi Shimbun, a leading newspaper, reported that Japan would initially allow an additional 500 foreigners a day to re-enter. That low figure, as well as the uncertainty over how the loosening would be carried out, has led people like Keifer Castigador, an engineer from the Philippines who left Japan in late February, to be wary of trying to return.

Mr. Castigador went to the Philippines to help his wife recover from an emergency cesarean section. He tried to return in May, when Japan announced that it was reopening to residents who had qualified for a humanitarian exemption. He confirmed his status with Japanese officials, but when he tried to re-enter the country, he was turned away, he said.

He was held in detention for a night at his own expense and returned to the Philippines, he said, where he had to go into quarantine. He is now waiting to see how the new rules play out before he tries to return.

“We’re sitting it out this time because it was too much for us last time,” he said.

For Mr. Mazziotta, the English teacher, the experience has left an indelible impression. He has applied to the Japanese Embassy in South Africa for permission to return under the new rules, but has not yet heard back. His Japanese work visa runs out in September, and with no clarity about when he will be allowed to return, he is beginning to lose hope.

“Even if I can go back,” he said, “I wonder if the mountain that has been built is too difficult to climb.”

Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.

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