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Japan's foreign residents to get COVID-19 vaccines at same time as citizens

In this Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 file photo, empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are seen at a vaccination center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Japan plans to issue coronavirus vaccination vouchers to its nearly 2.22 million registered foreign residents at the same time as Japanese citizens, but preparations to provide foreign-language information on how to get the jab remain up in the air.

    "Basically, the conditions to get vaccinated are the same (for foreigners) as for Japanese citizens," a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare representative told The Mainichi. "As a rule, vouchers will go to those with registered residences. Those who are clearly living in Japan will get vaccines."

    According to the health ministry, the two-shot vaccinations will go to medical workers first. Then, starting in April at the earliest, it will be administered to people turning 65 or older in fiscal 2021, then people with underlying health conditions, and finally to everyone else, all free of charge.

    "Elderly foreigners would naturally be in the same spot in line as elderly people generally. We have no plans to differentiate by nationality," the ministry representative said.

    But when asked about getting the vaccine to people living in Japan illegally or whose visas have lapsed during the crisis, the ministry stated only that it was "still coordinating on that point."

    Vaccinations will be administered by Japan's municipal governments. Municipal governments contacted by The Mainichi had varying approaches to distribute multilingual vaccine information to locals.

    A representative of Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, which had 38,276 registered foreign residents as of Feb. 1 this year, said they were "not thinking about" sending out vaccination briefing material in any foreign languages. The official also noted that the information the ward had received from the central government so far had been in Japanese only.

    However, "in terms of websites and so on, we will make it possible to get information to people in multiple languages," the representative added. Furthermore, the ward will "enable responses in multiple languages" for inquiries to ward consultation centers and other information services.

    In the town of Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture, where about 20% of the population is non-Japanese, a municipal official said information related to getting the vaccine would be translated into foreign languages and posted on the town website. "So basically, we'd like to have people check the website." The municipality is also considering how to provide multilingual services for the vaccine reservation call line, but has not made any decisions.

    The city of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture -- home to over 24,000 foreign nationals as of the end of 2018 -- told The Mainichi that sending multilingual information on the vaccinations with the voucher was "under consideration," but that space on the materials was limited. The city was, however, preparing measures to provide English and Portuguese services for its vaccination reservation line.

    Hamamatsu was also looking at partnering with the Hamamatsu Foundation for International Communication and Exchange to help foreign nationals get their shots, after a similar tie-up to help them access the 100,000-yen (about $956) government cash handout last year. The city is furthermore examining how to provide relevant information through its website, which is available in six foreign languages -- English, Portuguese, Tagalog, Chinese, Spanish and Vietnamese -- and easy Japanese.

    "We're still working on how to get the information to our Japanese residents, too," the official noted.

    The health ministry is looking to set up a central vaccination information website where people can search for inoculation venues.

    However, the health ministry representative said that they are "still coordinating" what languages the vaccine vouchers will be in. Regarding languages for the information website, the representative said, "We're coordinating that as well, but we'd like to put something out," adding that they'd also "like to release a leaflet-like poster or something similar."

    Meanwhile, the health ministry has a multilingual portal for coronavirus information, but it is difficult to find from the ministry's English-language homepage, and its current vaccine information site is available in Japanese only. Some information on the portal is also out of date. For example, the "development of medications and vaccines" page still states, "A proven vaccine for COVID-19 has not yet been developed."

    From the central government to the municipalities, much of the coronavirus vaccination rollout in foreign languages remains "to be determined." And while all the sources contacted affirmed that anyone with a registered address to send the vaccination vouchers would be able to get the shots, the current lack of language support raises the specter of foreign residents falling through the cracks because they cannot understand their vouchers or how to get the vaccine.

    (By Peter Masheter, Aaron Baldwin and Robert Sakai-Irvine, The Mainichi staff writers)

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