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Businesses in Japan call for border reopening as COVID curbs ease

Entry ban on nonresidents remains, hitting companies and students

Tokyo's Haneda International Airport: Japan has imposed strict entry restrictions on foreign nationals due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- Businesses and universities in Japan are renewing calls for foreign workers and students to be allowed into the country as the government prepares to lift other coronavirus-related restrictions.

States of emergency that have been in effect in Tokyo and other prefectures since April end on Thursday while the government prepares to shorten the mandatory quarantine period for citizens and resident foreign nationals returning to Japan.

The ban on new visa applicants entering the country, however, will remain in place.

"The total entry ban will stay with certain exceptions," a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Nikkei Asia. Any decisions on easing entry restrictions will be left to the new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, who is set to take office on Monday, Nikkei has reported.

Japan first tightened its borders early last year, and though new visa issuances for foreign employees and students resumed briefly in October 2020, the window was quickly shut. Visa issuances have now been on ice since January, a policy that has had a particularly heavy impact on universities.

Matthew Wilson, dean of Temple University's Japan campus, said four study-abroad cohorts totaling around 500 students have been canceled due to the entry restrictions.

"If we can't get certainty by October, we will have to cancel Spring 2022," Wilson said. With tuition and housing priced at $12,000 per semester, the university has lost at least $6 million from the canceled cohorts.

"Being able to land these students becomes increasingly difficult," Wilson said. "They're going to countries that are open to foreign students."

Students and companies have alternatives -- such as Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong -- that have continued issuing resident visas, with varying degrees of restrictions and hurdles.

A European pharmaceutical company is considering sending three executives originally scheduled to come to Japan, including its chief financial officer, to Singapore instead, according to the company's hiring director.

The company's overseas employees have chosen assignments in China over Japan out of concern their careers would stall while waiting for visas, the director said. "Sometimes we don't even get to the formal recruitment process because the first question they ask is, how easy is it to get into the country?"

Japanese and international law firms, meanwhile, are competing for a limited supply of bilingual lawyers remaining in the country after some returned home due to the pandemic.

Laurie Lebrun, partner at legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey and Africa, said she has advised recent graduates that "now is not the time to apply to Japan. The job market is hot in the U.S. right now, so it is better to remain there until the visa situation changes."

Resuming visa issuance was among the proposals that Keidanren, the powerful Japanese business lobby, submitted to outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga early in September. The proposals were based on input from Keidanren's member companies, whose top concern was allowing personnel to resume business travel, oversee projects, and strike deals without Japan's mandatory 14-day isolation.

"Our position is to aim to balance preventing COVID-19 and stopping its spread, and resumption of economic activity," a Keidanren spokesperson told Nikkei Asia.

Singapore, which Japan is chasing to become Asia's financial center, opened a quarantine-free travel lane for vaccinated arrivals this month, starting with Brunei and Germany. With an 80% vaccination rate, Singapore is looking to treat COVID-19 as an endemic disease.

"It would be hard to zero the number of COVID-19 cases," said the Keidanren spokesperson. "We recognize Singapore's approach is realistic."

In a recent survey of over 300 member companies by the American Chamber of Commerce and European Business Council in Japan, 68% said entry restrictions had a "significant" impact on their Japanese customers, affecting new business development, governance meetings and audits.

"The chambers are concerned that if companies need to find local replacements, that would lower the significance of Japan as a regional hub," said Michael Mroczek, president of the European Business Council in Japan.

Companies are looking to the new prime minister to provide clarity on timing and requirements.

"We don't know what to say to our clients," said Gael Austin, a Tokyo-based business consultant who helps foreign companies set up entities in Japan. One European client sent their country manager to South Korea, overseeing the Japan market from Seoul while waiting for his visa.

"Japan is getting a strange image because they opened the doors for the Olympics but keep them closed for business," Austin said.

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