TOKYO -- International business groups are stepping up calls for Japan to reopen its borders to its foreign residents, saying the country is jeopardizing its reputation for business stability with tough travel bans imposed in the wake of the new coronavirus.
Japan has all but barred permanent and long-term foreign residents from traveling to the country while allowing its nationals to re-enter with necessary testing and quarantine. The difference in treatment is exasperating many in Japan's large international community.
"The travel ban is something that European companies have a hard time" understanding, Michael Mroczek, president of the European Business Council in Japan, told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan this week.
Some European companies that have their Asian regional headquarters in Japan may "start thinking to switch the headquarters from Japan to other countries," Mroczek said, as executives can't go to neighboring countries, and companies are "losing competitiveness" compared to peers in Japan.
"Some companies may think Japan is unpredictable, so even if the travel ban is lifted, [they fear that] it may come arbitrarily again," he added, saying permanent and long-term residence holders play an important business role in Japan.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan this month made clear its concern, saying Japan should fall in line with other G-7 countries and allow foreigners with proper permanent residency and their immediate family members to enter.
According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, the country has 2.93 million foreign residents, or around 2% of the population. The category refers to foreign nationals legally residing in Japan for more than three months and includes permanent residents, mid- and long-term visa holders, trainees and foreign students.
Like many countries, Japan has imposed a swath of extra immigration rules in response to the pandemic. Since April 3 the country's foreign residents have not been allowed to return to Japan if they leave and visit countries subject to a re-entry ban, even if they hold permanent residency or a long-term resident visa. The list now includes 111 countries and regions.
The policy has been reviewed, and Japan permits returns for special circumstances, such as those leaving to visit a close family member in critical condition or to attend a relative's funeral.
But foreign business groups say the rules need further change.
"European businesspeople based in Japan cannot travel to Europe to meet their customers," for example, said Mroczek. Japanese nationals, on the other hand, are eligible to return to Japan even after a business trip abroad.
He rejected arguments that the measure to ban re-entry of foreign nationals was to contain the virus's spread. "Japanese citizens can [also] bring [the] virus to Japan. This doesn't appear to make sense to European businesses here," Mroczek said.
Other foreign business groups are voicing similar criticism. "The prohibition currently in place on the entry into Japan of foreign nationals who have a permanent abode, family and work base in Japan is detrimental to Japan's long-term interests," the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan said in a statement issued on June 4. The measure is affecting those who are "a vital part of effectively managing American businesses in Japan," the statement says.
The ACCJ wants the Japanese government to make foreign nationals eligible to travel like Japanese citizens when the country gradually reopens its borders under agreements with countries that are deemed to have sufficiently contained the virus. The Japanese government has decided to first open borders to business travelers from Vietnam, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.
"Many ACCJ member companies have regional headquarters and production sites elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, and those companies will be able to more fully contribute to Japan's recovery if all of their personnel are permitted to depart for and return from such designated countries in the same manner as Japanese nationals," the chamber said.
Mroczek said the four countries Japan is expected to prioritize are "not main business players for Japan." He said Europe accounted for nearly half of the direct foreign investment into Japan and should be a priority.
The German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan on June 10 published survey data noting that 78% of German companies in Japan have been significantly burdened by the entry ban on foreign nationals. While Japan is the third most important location for German regional headquarters in the Asia-Pacific region, its "role as a hub for international business in East Asia comes into question" due to the travel restrictions, the survey says.
More than a quarter of affected German companies expect some action by the Japanese government to compensate for additional costs caused by the entry ban, including tax relief measures.
"If Japan fails to reopen its border in a responsible manner, it will impact the recovery of the Japanese economy," said Marcus Schuermann, a delegate of the German Industry and Commerce in Japan and CEO of the German industrial group in Japan. "Foreign businesses need a reliable timeline in order for them to plan important projects, make essential customer visits and dispatch experts and executives, including their spouses and families," he added.
Japan's Immigration Services Agency says decisions over foreign residents are a matter for individual governments.
"International law guarantees [people] the right of voluntary return or re-entry to their country of origin or of citizenship, and leaves decisions to each country as for foreign nationals," an official at the agency told the Nikkei Asian Review.
"In Japan, we don't allow your re-entry to Japan without condition even if you have permanent residency," he added, arguing that the measure is to contain the virus's spread in Japan as the infection status changes rapidly in other regions.
"We look at individual cases and allow some re-entry on humanitarian grounds," the official said.
Mroczek said there is "unequal treatment and [a] lack of reciprocity" between Japan and the EU regarding immigration policy. The EU has allowed both EU and non-EU citizens who are long-term residents in the EU to return there.
"We are all impacted [by] the coronavirus," he said, "but the travel ban is impacting in an unreasonably additional way."
Following permanent and long-term residents, business people coming from Europe should be allowed to enter Japan, he added, with international tourists entering in the last phase.