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Japan eases border restrictions on foreign students as educators criticize delayed response

Professor Takuji Iwasato of the Graduate University for Advanced Studies (Sokendai) holds an online meeting with students of his lab in this photo provided by himself.

TOKYO -- Legions of foreign students locked out of Japan by coronavirus border controls are expected to finally begin arriving in the country, after the government relaxed the measures on Nov. 8. But while some in higher education circles are celebrating the move, critics called it "irresponsible" or "coming too late, depriving students of precious time."

    A quarantine expert also questioned the across-the-board relaxation of restrictions, and called on universities accepting overseas students to "manage" them properly by "enforcing testing and isolation, among other measures."

    "I'm less motivated, and I'm struggling because I can't focus on my studies," said a 25-year-old Chinese student during an online meeting with genetics professor Takuji Iwasato of the Graduate University for Advanced Studies (Sokendai). The student, who is privately funding her education, entered the doctoral program at the university in April, but she has not been able to enter Japan.

    The student currently lives in her hometown in China's Shandong province. Although she has been reading academic papers and textbooks on neuroscience, and has attended online study sessions by her lab, she has not been able to join experiments. Experiments are indispensable for research into cranial nerve function. While the student apparently said that she was "glad to hear the good news" on the eased border restrictions, Iwasato could not hide his concern that the university has "hardly been able to provide substantial education, because she hasn't been able to get into the country."

    The laboratory of Kyoto University neurobiology professor Mineko Kengaku has also accepted a study-abroad student. The 22-year-old Chinese student passed the entrance exam in January 2020, and had planned to enroll in October that year. However, this was postponed to April this year because of COVID-19. Although the privately-funded student managed to join the lab this spring, he, too, is studying remotely from China and cannot participate in experiments. Professor Kengaku commented, "The student has only been able to attend online, and his enthusiasm has waned. The Japanese government has deprived students of precious time. The relaxation of entry restrictions has come too late."

    A lab at Kyoto University which includes foreign students is shown in this photo provided by Kyoto University professor Mineko Kengaku.

    The Japanese government had gradually imposed restrictions on new entries by foreign nationals to prevent the virus's spread, and eased them in October 2020. However, after infections surged again, the government reimposed restrictions from January 2021. About 95% of all foreign students seeking to study in Japan (excluding those studying on government scholarships and other exceptions) have been locked out of the country. With the easing of restrictions on Nov. 8, the students -- as well as foreign businesspeople and technical interns, who were also subject to travel bans -- are now allowed to come in under certain conditions.

    According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, the number of foreign students who newly entered the country under the "study-abroad" residency status fell to 7,078 in the first half of 2021, or a little over 10% of the 61,520 who arrived in the first half of 2019. Japan was the only G-7 country left banning entries by foreign students in principle, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and many university-affiliated figures had been demanding a speedy relaxation of these restrictions.

    People in higher education have been expressing a sense of crisis over the long entry bans. If education for foreign students is neglected, there is a risk that top-flight students will dismiss Japan as a study-abroad destination. Professor Kengaku said, "You could also say that foreign students are a driving force behind research. The policy taken until now, which one might say shut the country off from the rest of the world, has had serious consequences for trust, and will also lead to Japan's global presence dwindling."

    Furthermore, entry bans on foreign students may lead to cross-border connections being broken, as well as lost opportunities for international joint research in the future.

    "International exchange is necessary for the development of science, and foreign students are a significant pillar for this," said Sokendai's Iwasato. "Although it's Japan's responsibility to properly educate foreign students who have been accepted (into universities), it abandoned this responsibility for an extensive period."

    (Japanese original by Shimpei Torii, Science & Environment News Department)

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