Japanese government warned its isolationist Covid policy risks alienating allies
People wearing protective masks walk in the Shibuya district of Tokyo on 9 October
Toru Hanai/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Japan’s government is facing international pressure to relax its Covid-19 restrictions, which are among the tightest in the world.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida imposed what The Guardian described as a “near-blanket travel ban” at the end of November in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant.
The measures prevent all arrivals except citizens and returning foreign residents, and have affected tens of thousands of people, from new students to the children of Japanese nationals. The number of arrivals into Japan each day is also capped at around 3,500.
A 20-year-old Canadian student told the paper that she’d been waiting for two years to begin her studies in Tokyo. “I love Japan so this is heartbreaking, but I can’t spend my whole life waiting,” she said. “If Japan doesn’t open its borders this year I’m going to have to look elsewhere.”
Japan has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, at 80.5%, and a low Covid death rate of 156.62 deaths per million people, compared with the UK’s 2,370 and the US’s 2,765. This is in spite of Japan having one of the world’s oldest populations: the average age is almost 46 and nearly 30% of the nation is over 65, according to Bloomberg.
Struggle to contain Omicron
In recent months, however, Japan has struggled to contain the highly infectious Omicron variant, reporting in late January that daily nationwide infections had topped 70,000 for the first time since the pandemic began.
“Because this virus is an unknown we must throw in all our resources,” said Kishida after the first Omicron case without a link to foreign travel was reported in Osaka in December. “In a crisis, it’s better to do too much than too little, too late.”
A survey carried out in early December by the Yomiuri newspaper found that almost 90% of Japanese citizens backed the prime minister’s decision to tighten travel restrictions and that support for Kishida had risen six percentage points to 62%.
Japan’s strict zero-Covid policy has been dubbed “neo-sakoku” – a reference to the “sakoku” policy the country adopted between the 17th and 19th centuries, when it severed almost all contact with the outside world.
Meaning “chained country”, sakoku was enforced by Japan’s military Tokugawa shogunate government. It imposed strict guidelines including the “death penalty to those who had contact with the outside world”, explained History 101.
The period lasted for almost 200 years and was only overturned when the leadership was forced to establish relations with the US.
Japan has been warned that its “neo-sakoku” policy risks alienating its allies, with the recent tightening of restrictions branded “‘unscientific’, discriminatory against foreign nationals and out of step with other G7 democracies”, said Ben Ascione, an assistant professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, in the Australian Financial Review.
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Business leaders are saying that this isolationist approach has undermined Tokyo’s efforts to become a global financial centre, as it has made it impossible for the country to attract international talent and conduct global deals face-to-face.
Christopher LaFleur, a special adviser and former chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, told the FT that companies had found it a struggle “to fully maintain their business operations in Japan”.
Impact on education
The number of international students in Japan has also dropped significantly during the pandemic, from over 312,000 in 2019 to less than 280,000 in 2020, according to the East Asia Forum.
Around 150,000 international students enrolled in Japanese universities remain “locked out” of the country, with an exception given by the government to just 400.
A public letter published on Go Petition last month called on Japan’s government to open its borders to foreign students and scholars.
These students are “few in number, and they invest a large amount of time and effort to become familiar with Japan’s language, culture, and society”, read the letter, which was signed by more than 100 educators and policymakers with links to Japan.
“They become the bridges between Japan and other societies,” it added. “They are future policymakers, business leaders, and teachers. They are the foundation of the US-Japan alliance and other international relationships that support Japan’s core national interests.”
One of the only times that Japan has relaxed its borders to foreign visitors since the pandemic began was during last summer’s 2020 Tokyo Olympics, when tens of thousands of people arrived to participate in and report on the games.
A widespread outbreak driven by the Delta variant was linked to the games, but the strict measures imposed are thought to have curbed transmission relatively successfully.
The controversial decision to hold the Tokyo Olympics during the pandemic is thought to have contributed to Yoshihide Suga’s downfall. The former prime minister ended up not seeking re-election as leader late last year.
Matthew J. Wilson, the dean and president of Temple University in Tokyo, told the Japan Times he was concerned the government’s mixed messages regarding tight restrictions and hosting the Olympics had created the wrong perception that “Japan does not value education”.
“Olympic athletes can come in, you have people that are associated with those folks, but we can’t get students in,” he said.
“The Japanese government needs to protect health and safety. But it’s possible to protect health without completely shutting the door to an important component of society in terms of future leaders like students.”