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'Forced quarantine' at Japan's border: A returnee's experience coming home (Pt. 1)

A Mainichi Shimbun reporter holds out a saliva-based testing kit he was required to submit on the last day he stayed at a hotel in the city of Narita, Chiba Prefecture, on March 17, 2021. For the reporter's family, it was their fourth coronavirus-related test. (Mainichi/Yuta Hiratsuka)

Japan's border controls to head off the coronavirus spread have been labelled "too lax" by some online. In this first in a three-part series, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter describes his experience returning to Japan in March with his wife and 2-year-old son from Switzerland, a country designated as one where new virus strains are reportedly spreading.

    Currently, entry to Japan is limited to returnees of Japanese nationality and some foreigners with residency status, and they are required to self-isolate for two weeks on entry. But, people from designated countries and regions where coronavirus variants are said to be spreading must spend four days and three nights at a government-specified hotel.

    Due to cases of people being monitored by police officers during transportation to the hotels, and because surveillance agents standing in the accommodation hallways, some call it "forced quarantine."

    ****

    I took paternity leave to live with my wife, who had been assigned to work in Switzerland, from July 2020. Since my wife's overseas assignment and my paternity leave had been finalized before the coronavirus began spreading, we couldn't change our schedule. To ensure we could both start working in Japan again from April 2021, we had planned to return between March 13 and 14.

    We flew from Geneva Airport and entered Japan via the Netherlands. But returning to our normal lives wasn't that simple; first we had to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test in Switzerland within 72 hours of departure, then an antigen test within four hours of departure, and another antigen test on arrival at Narita International Airport. Three days after entry to Japan, we had yet another antigen test.

    "Health cards" that ask questions such as which countries the passenger stayed at and their state of health, which were handed out during the flight, are seen in this photo taken on a plane headed to Narita International Airport on March 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuta Hiratsuka)

    All three of us tested negative two days before departure. To catch a plane leaving around 7 a.m. on March 13 (local time), we woke up at 4 a.m. and were tested for antigens at Geneva Airport. We had already moved out of our home in Switzerland, and were staying at a hotel near the airport, but our long day had to begin by somehow getting our cranky son into his stroller.

    The antigen test was required by the Dutch government, and our use of the Netherlands as a transit point meant we had to have them. We all tested negative, and were relieved as the Amsterdam flight to Narita took off just past noon.

    The plane was almost empty; about one person per 10 seats. With so many vacant spaces, the three of us could lie down on three-row seats. But our son's excitability and attempts to move around meant we could barely sleep. My wife and I took turns to play with him using toys and movies on the seatback screen so that he wouldn't make a fuss, which was quite nerve-wracking. During the roughly 11-hour flight, I slept for only about an hour, while my wife didn't sleep at all.

    We arrived at Narita airport at 9:40 a.m. on March 14 (Japan time). It was already 22 hours since we began our journey to enter Japan. But much more was to come.

    (This is Part 1 of a three-part series)

    (Japanese original by Yuta Hiratsuka, Kyushu News Department)

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