Japan's long border closure to do lasting damage to scholarship

On October 11, Japan will lift most of the remaining border restrictions it enforced more than two years ago, at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. On the face of it, that means a return to normal. But the restrictions, among the strictest and longest-lasting in the world, are likely to cause lasting problems for academia and potentially beyond.

"I had to postpone my plans for three school terms in a row and I ended up cancelling the whole thing," says Ame, a freelance art director in Paris who prefers to go by her nickname. "I really, really wanted to experience life in Japan so it was hard to put my dreams aside."

The 27-year-old has been determined to become fluent in Japanese since she was 12. After studying the language on her own for two years, Ame applied to a language school in Tokyo in June 2021. In the hope that Japan would reopen its borders by January this year, she prepared the paperwork and quit her full-time job.

But the border restrictions stayed in place. Ame postponed her move by three months and began working on a freelance basis to make ends meet.

Ame felt foreigners were no longer welcome when Japan kept its borders shut while most countries were reopening. "I was confused and sad because I was really hoping Japan would reopen," she says.

In April, international students were once more allowed entry to Japan. But due to problems obtaining a visa, Ame had to postpone yet again, pushing her plans back to June, then to October.

In the end, however, she grew tired of the "stressful and very intense" life of waiting and watching, and resolved to stay in France, where she had established herself as a freelance worker.

"The situation changed so much in a year," says Ame. "My aims a year ago are no longer my aims now. I decided that I would carry on with my life here in France and just travel in Asia for now."

Giving up on Japan

Indonesian university student Mutiah Az Zahra also had hopes of studying in Japan. The 23-year-old took part in online programs offered by Osaka and Kyoto universities in 2021 and 2022 in anticipation of eventually being able to travel to the country.

As a psychology major, she hoped to conduct fieldwork among international students living in Japan. But without permission to live and study in the country, she struggled to find participants to complete the research for her thesis. She has since decided to delay her graduation.

Mutiah Az Zahra became interested in Japan when she visited the country on an exchange program as a high school student.

Mutiah was thinking of pursuing her studies further and even trying to find a job in Japan after graduating, but she says that's no longer an option.

"I'll try to get a master's degree, but Japan is not among my top three or even five picks for study destinations," she says. "It will be a country such as Canada, New Zealand or the UK," says Mutiah. "I think I've had enough."

Shifting away from Japan studies

Since March of 2022, Japan has allowed foreign students and academics to enter the country, but only if their school or university vouches for them.

This requirement has prevented many researchers from getting in, says Sasaki Tomoyuki, an associate professor of Japanese studies at the College of William & Mary in the United States.

"Researchers are often solitary workers," says Sasaki. "Very few of them have been able to visit Japan since the spring of 2020 because you don't always have institutional support for fieldwork and archival research." Complex visa procedures have also discouraged visits to Japan, he says.

Sasaki conducted an online survey of more than 350 academics and scholars in the United States, Europe and Asia who have an interest in Japan studies. The results show Japan's prolonged closure has had an impact on academia that is set to play out for years to come, Sasaki says.

About 97 percent of the survey respondents said Japan's border restrictions had either "strongly" or "somewhat" affected their current and future research efforts. In response to a multiple-choice question, more than 70 percent reported that they were unable to conduct archival research in Japan, while nearly 60 percent said they had been unable to carry out fieldwork.

Fifty-three percent said there were fewer scholars interested in work connected to Japan, while 61 percent said there was less scholarly interest in Japan itself because of the border restrictions. Forty-four percent said they're seeing a decline in the number of Japan studies programs.

One professor at a prestigious university is now recommending that students avoid choosing Japan as their sole focus. Another respondent said the border restrictions meant fewer students are showing an interest in Japan, which could threaten the institution's department of East Asian studies.

Sasaki says the survey demonstrated disappointment and frustration about Japan's strict border controls.

"It took decades for researchers to build up the field of Japan studies but now it's falling apart as many shift their focus elsewhere," says Sasaki. "I am not sure this trend can be reversed easily when Japan's borders reopen."

Japan accepted a record 310,000 overseas students in 2019. That figure dropped by about 20 percent over the following two years.

The Ministry of Education aims to restore the number to pre-pandemic levels by 2027. If Japan can't reverse the decline in interest, officials say the ramifications will extend far beyond academia to all reaches of society.

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