Searching for clarity in Japan's border rules

Japanese officials are scrambling to keep the Omicron variant from taking hold inside the country. They're focusing on border restrictions, but the rules are unclear, especially for Japan's foreign residents.

Kishida's statements create anxiety

The day before the Omicron variant was detected in Japan, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio made an announcement that stirred fears among his country's expatriate community.

"I decided to put entry restrictions in place for foreigners from all over the world starting on Tuesday," he told reporters at a news conference on November 29.

The government told airlines to suspend new flight bookings to Japan for the rest of the year, including for Japanese nationals.

It frustrated citizens who hoped to travel home, forcing officials to reverse the decision 3 days later.

"I instructed the transport ministry to fully consider the demand from Japanese people for a way to return home," Kishida said.

But missing from Kishida's statements was any mention of Japan's 2.9 million foreign residents. Many wondered if they were now banned from re-entering, and that anxiety has remained.

Foreign residents struggle to find information

Ukrainian Anna Omelchenko is feeling vulnerable as a resident of Japan who's abroad right now. She works at an IT company in Tokyo, but last week she flew home to visit her parents for the first time in 3 years.

She plans to fly back to Japan later this month, and she's struggling to confirm if that will be possible.

"I wake up in the morning and I check what the government implemented and I need to go and check all the sites," Omelchenko told NHK from her parents' home in Baryshivka, Ukraine.

"And of course there is not enough information in English, and I need to read it in Japanese."

Anna Omelchenko is struggling to find information on whether she can return to Japan.

"Does the virus read your passport?"

Japan's government raised alarm when it banned the re-entry of foreigners from 10 countries in southern Africa, effective December 2.

It brought back difficult memories from 2020, when many foreign residents were unable to return to Japan for months, while Japanese citizens were still allowed in.

Experts like WHO Health Emergencies Program head Michael Ryan are critical of border restrictions that target nationality.

"Epidemiologically, I find it hard to understand the principle there," Ryan told a news conference on December 1.

"Is it that some passport holders will have the virus and some won't? Does the virus read your passport? Does the virus know your nationality or where you are legally resident?" Ryan said.

Foreign residents can re-enter

Japanese immigration officials told NHK that as of December 3, foreign residents from most countries are still allowed to re-enter Japan.

But some worry that could still change depending on what happens with the Omicron variant.

The government has said the current rules will be in place until the end of December, for now.

That isn't inspiring confidence for ex-pats who are planning to travel outside Japan soon. American Ashley McLaughlin is an English teacher in Japan. She has a flight booked to visit her family on December 4, but with the uncertainty around the border rules, she's on the verge of cancelling.

Ashley McLaughlin is considering canceling her flight to the US because she might not be able to re-enter Japan.

McLaughlin worries things will change before she flies back to Japan in January.

"Is seeing my family worth possibly not being able to come back for an amount of time?" McLaughlin said. "So it's difficult for sure."

Japan's Border Restrictions

On Friday, NHK asked officials from Japan's Immigration Services Agency to clarify the current border measures as they relate to foreign residents. The following are the restrictions as of December 3:

  • New foreign arrivals are banned (exceptions include spouses or children of citizens or permanent residents, and diplomats)
  • Foreign residents of Japan are able to leave and re-enter from 152 countries and territories
  • Foreign residents cannot re-enter Japan if they have been in 10 countries in southern Africa within the past 14 days (The restriction does not apply to Japanese citizens)
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