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'Forced quarantine' at Japan's border: A returnee's experience coming home (Pt. 2)

An area set up inside Narita International Airport where arriving passengers wait to get their coronavirus test results is seen in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, on March 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuta Hiratsuka)

While critics have called Japan's border control measures to prevent more coronavirus cases from entering the country "too lax," some people who have gone through the process have said that relentless monitoring during their self-isolation period made the experience feel like "forced quarantine." In this three-part series, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter describes his experience of returning to Japan with his family from Switzerland, where virus variants have been spreading.

    Part 1 traced the footsteps of the reporter, his wife, and their 2-year-old son as they finally managed to get on a flight back to Japan, a trip that took about 11 hours. In Part 2, we continue to follow the family as they face a new set of trials at the airport.


    Upon arrival at Narita International Airport near Tokyo, we were first guided into a room with rows of numbered folding chairs. Staff wearing gear with the word "QUARANTINE" on it went around the room, and checked the health questionnaire cards that had been distributed on the plane, as well as the negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test certificates we had been issued in Switzerland.

    Next, we and the other passengers were moved to a different area where samples were collected for a post-arrival antigen test -- the third coronavirus test we had to take on our journey from Switzerland to Japan via the Netherlands. We already took a PCR test in Switzerland within 72 hours prior to departure and an antigen test within four hours of departure. A fourth test had to be taken on the third day of isolation, counted from a day after arrival.

    Adults were led to individual booths separated by partitions, and put their saliva into a container resembling a test tube while facing a wall covered with pictures of lemons and "umeboshi" pickled plums. I wondered if human saliva can only be produced this way.

    My 2-year-old son, who had trouble giving a saliva sample, wailed as a cotton swab was inserted into his nose. The experience made the already tired boy cranky, and he descended into a tantrum, yelling that he was going home.

    A Mainichi Shimbun reporter's 2-year-old son, who wants to leave the hotel room where the family is in quarantine, is seen alongside a paper sign reading, "Stay (in the) room," in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, on March 16, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuta Hiratsuka)

    With the samples taken, we moved to yet another spot in the airport. The passengers presented a written pledge to "avoid contact with others as much as possible," which had been signed beforehand with the address each person would be staying at during self-isolation, and staff confirmed with us how to inform officials of our health status during our self-isolation period.

    Passengers were then shown into a space inside the airport waiting area, and there we sat tight for about an hour for the test results. Once these were delivered, we finally went through immigration and got our luggage. It was at around 1:30 p.m. that my family and I boarded a designated bus to head to the hotel where we were to be kept in isolation. Nearly four hours had passed since we had landed.

    While we were waiting for the bus, we were not able to buy anything except for some drinks and bread from airport vending machines. The seats on the bus and its walls were all covered in plastic, and the driver was also fully clad in white protective gear. Preparations seemed elaborate.

    When we were dropped off at a business hotel near the airport, a quarantine inspection official in the first-floor lobby once again checked our documentation and explained precautionary points.

    We ate the vending machine bread as a late lunch in the hotel room, and finally got settled at around 3 p.m. My wife and I had been up for 27 hours since we had woken up on our last day in Switzerland. Our young son, who fell asleep in his stroller during our wait at the airport, began to play on the bed, but neither my wife nor I had the energy to pay him attention, and ended up nodding off. Our son, too, fell asleep soon afterwards.

    When we contacted the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare via the Embassy of Japan in Switzerland before leaving, they informed us that there was no guarantee we would be given our preferred room assignment. Luckily, we were able to get one comparatively large room to ourselves. However, we were banned from opening the door except when receiving our bento meals and taking out trash. On the door was a sign that read, "STAY ROOM."

    Although we were able to return to Japan at last, my family and I had to endure another four days banned from going anywhere.

    (This is Part 2 of a three-part series)

    (Japanese original by Yuta Hiratsuka, Kyushu News Department)

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