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'Forced quarantine' at Japan's border: A returnee's experience coming home (Pt. 3)

A bento box meal provided at the hotel that a Mainichi Shimbun reporter spent four days at, is seen in this photo taken in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, on March 16, 2021. Every meal came with instant miso soup, and sometimes fruits. (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 say the 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 in March 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. Part 2 described the set of trials they faced at the airport. In part 3, we will continue to follow the family, as they spend four days in quarantine at a government-specified hotel.

    *****

    After taking three coronavirus tests, we finally arrived at the hotel, where we had to spend four days, even though the cherry blossom blooming season had already begun in Tokyo, and the gentle spring view could be seen from a window.

    The hotel room, which a Mainichi Shimbun reporter spent four days at with his wife and son, is seen in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, on March 14, 2021. The family was offered a bigger room presumably because they were with a child. (Mainichi/Yuta Hiratsuka)

    The cost for spending four days and three nights at the government-specified hotel in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, and food is covered by the Japanese government. All meals come in bento boxes, and are delivered three times a day. Announcements saying, "We will now deliver the bento, so please do not open your door," and, "We have delivered them, so please open your door and get them," are made each time before and after a delivery. This is so that workers handing out the bento do not come into contact with returnees.

    The meals are cold, but there was no microwave in our room. Although I was excited about the bento since I hadn't tasted Japanese cuisine in a while, my wife and son didn't have a good appetite presumably because of fatigue and the food being cold, respectively. Since our room did have a water boiler, I poured hot water into the instant miso soup we got, but our son who loves soup didn't even take a sip. It may also have been due to jet lag and the difference in the environment.

    I was able to exchange information with other returnees who entered Japan from Haneda Airport in Tokyo and Kansai International Airport in Osaka Prefecture. My friend in Haneda sent me a picture of their bento, but our meals seemed to have more types of vegetables and fruits. They told me that Haneda and Kansai airports had stricter monitoring systems, such as people being monitored by police officers during transportation to the hotels, and surveillance agents standing in the accommodation hallways at all times. It's possibly because the two airports are closer to urban areas.

    Our room was presumably next to a family with a youngster, and a child's voice and the sound of them running could be heard even in the night. But I never thought about complaining, rather I wanted to apologize for our son crying loudly at night due to jetlag. Our son seemed low on energy as his appetite had not returned. As a result, he also lacked the urge to play energetically, which was our biggest concern, but we were able to manage the situation mostly by showing him videos online and playing with toys.

    Yet us adults also began feeling our limits, living in this closed room with fixed windows. Even when the smell of our son's dirty diapers filled the room, the bathroom ventilation fan was all we had. Of course, there was no room cleaning service, and we couldn't do laundry. Though they offered us new towels when we asked for them, they didn't come to pick up used towels due to infection concerns.

    On our journey from Switzerland to Japan via the Netherlands, 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 then another antigen test on arrival at Narita International Airport. An additional antigen test had to be taken on the third day of isolation, counted from a day after arrival.

    On the morning of the fourth day at the hotel, a coronavirus saliva test kit was placed outside our door, which was our final coronavirus test. This time, instead of putting the syringe in our son's nostril, we used it to collect saliva from his mouth little by little. That afternoon, after we all tested negative, we were sent back to Narita Airport on a bus. The seats weren't wrapped in plastic this time.

    We reached the airport at around 4 p.m. on March 17. We were finally released from the hotel 78 hours after we arrived in Japan, but now we had to travel to a different accommodation facility to self-quarantine for 11 days. Since we couldn't use public transport, and our residence isn't located in the Tokyo metropolitan area, our family used a limousine taxi we booked to head to the private home in Tokyo we had to stay at. This time we could go buy groceries, which was a significant difference from when we couldn't go out from the government-designated hotel. We could cook our own meals, and our son repeatedly said the food tasted good.

    *****

    This method, which some refer to as "forced quarantine," was first applied to people like those returning from Britain, but the list has grown to include over 20 countries such as France and Germany. Quarantine stations are forced to bear a heavy burden, and some of the staff had nameplates with the names of major temp agencies. If you don't have someone close who recently returned to Japan, you would probably never know what is actually happening. When I talk about my experience to my friends, they all look shocked and ask, "You were still quarantined after taking four tests?"

    Meanwhile, a man who spread virus variants due to having dinner with many people during the two-week self-quarantine period after returning from the U.K. appeared on the news before the implementation of the method. When you hear this kind of news, it makes you wonder if Japan's border control measures are efficient. Comparing it to China, where people who enter are basically asked to stay in quarantine at hotels for 14 days, some netizens say Japan's system is "too lax."

    In Japan, however, returnees were asked to install a location tracking app on their smartphones before they left the designated hotels. During the self-quarantine period, our location was checked every day and we also had to report our health conditions. The government can disclose the names of people who do not cooperate.

    Luckily, my wife and I were able to enter Japan together, but Japanese people who are married to foreigners can only take their children without their partners as they are banned from entry. Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Norihisa Tamura said on a TV program on March 21 that he intends to apply this method for everyone entering Japan, but it will be necessary to further enhance the arrangement at quarantine stations and improve accommodation facilities so that parents with children can stay healthy during quarantine.

    (This is the final part of a three-part series)

    (Japanese original by Yuta Hiratsuka, Kyushu News Department)

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