BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO, Japan — After coming under fierce criticism both at home and overseas, the Japanese government has capitulated and announced that it will reopen its doors to foreign nationals who are residents of Japan but have been stuck outside the country since the coronavirus pandemic struck.
The authorities estimate that around 100,000 foreigners who are legal residents of Japan have not been able to return since the government introduced a ban on foreign arrivals on April 3. The measure was deeply controversial as Japanese nationals have been allowed to return home during that time.
Still, it is hoped that the new regulations, which are scheduled to go into force around the end of July, will also help Japan to prepare to gradually reopen its borders to foreign tourists.
“It is important to gradually resume the international movement of people,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a meeting on July 22 of the government’s task force set up to handle Tokyo’s response to the pandemic.
Under the government’s plans, foreigners who wish to return to Japan will be required to take a PCR test at the time of their departure to confirm that they are not infected with the virus.
They will then undergo a second test when they arrive in Japan. Anyone who tests positive for the illness will not be permitted to enter the country.
All those who are granted entry will still be required to self-quarantine for two weeks.
The government is expected to initially set a limit of 500 re-entries per day on the grounds that it still has limited testing ability at major ports of entry. It plans to increase the number of people being permitted to enter as testing capacity increases and if there is no sudden surge in infections.
The government’s ban on foreign residents returning from 129 countries and regions while Japanese nationals were permitted to re-enter the country has been roundly criticized.
In a statement, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan has requested that the government drop “double-standard” rules on entry for foreign nationals and to treat all residents returning equally.
“Foreign residents of Japan who have made a decision to build a life here and contribute to the Japanese economy should not be subject to a double standard restricting their travel, economic, and familial opportunities based on nationality,” Christopher J. LaFleur, chairman of the American Chamber, said.
“While we applaud and support the Japanese government’s efforts to manage the COVID-19 crisis, a resident’s nationality provides no basis on which to assess risk or assign travel privilege in relation to COVID-19,” he said.
LaFler said foreign nationals “positively contribute to Japan’s economy and society” and do not pose any greater risk than Japanese citizens returning to Japan.
The statement said the government’s policy raises concerns among the international business community about Japan’s long-term interests “in particular as to Japan’s attractiveness as a place to invest and station managerial employees with regional responsibility.”
A study by the European Business Council determined that 85% of the 376 member companies had been negatively impacted by the government’s policy, with 44% saying they had suffered financial losses as a direct consequence.
The council said the restrictions contravene international treaties and could lead to investment disputes against Tokyo, while the way the ban may also encourage some European firms to “rethink their policy regarding Japan,” EBC Chairman Michael Mroczek told reporters.
Even some of Japan’s professional sports teams have expressed their dismay at the ban, with representatives of the basketball and volleyball leagues calling on the government to relax rules that have kept as many as 150 players and coaches from rejoining their teams here.
Foreign residents of Japan took to social media to criticize what many see as a discriminatory policy.
On July 23, the nation-wide total of new infections surpassed the 900 threshold for the first time, with a record 366 new cases in Tokyo, 104 in Osaka Prefecture and 97 in Aichi Prefecture, centered on the city of Nagoya. The previous one-day record was 795 the previous day. In total, Japan has reported 28.190 cases of the virus and 1,004 fatalities.
The prime minister has also said that Japan plans to open negotiations with 12 countries and regions — including New Zealand, South Korea, China and Taiwan — on the easing of travel restrictions but not when.
Guam is not on that list. Nor is the Northern Mariana Islands.
At a July 29 virtual news conference in Saipan, Alexander A. Sablan — vice president of corporate business development at Tan Holdings Corp. and a member of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors; told the Journal that the NMI had been communicating with its target markets, to include Japan.
“We’ve been working with our consul general here as well as the Japan Society and our Japan stakeholders to attempt to do the same process of getting in with the Japan government. And considering we are an extremely low risk destination, we hope that we are able to get onto the list,” he said.
The NMI hit 42 positive cases of COVID-19.
The commonwealth will continue its efforts, he said. “Now we understand that Japan has extended its timeline for relaxing its quarantine measures … we’re hopeful we can get into the discussion table about the CNMI and the opportunity. The hope is that we can agree on some mitigation measures and relax these quarantine measures on both sides when Japan does open up officially and allows the flights to other destinations.”
Sablan said he will be meeting on July 30 “with our committee of tourism stakeholders, government entities that are responsible for these structures and continuing that discussion so that we have the ability to open our doors with Japan as quickly and as safely as possible.”
At the Guam Visitors Bureau July 23 board meeting, Gerald S.A. Perez, deputy CEO of GVB; recommended visiting the various markets. We really need to encourage them to differentiate Guam from the U.S.”
He suggested that Gov. Lourdes A. Leon Guerrero and CEO Carl T.C. Gutierrez lead any group. “If we can generate a bubble or corridor … that’s what that meeting is designed to do.”
Milton Morinaga, managing director of Ken PHR and a board member said at the board meeting that while the Okinawa has become very popular in Japan, throughout the country. “There’s an overwhelming desire to travel.”
On July 30, a joint release from Japan and Hawaii announced that Hawaii was under consideration as a destination.
Guam reported 354 positive cases on July 30, compared to Hawaii’s 1,757 as of July 28. – Journal Staff contributed to this story. mbj