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Virus, procedure concerns remain as Japan resumes accepting foreign trainees and students

The Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University campus is shown in this photo taken in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, on Nov. 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Nao Ishii)

With over two weeks having passed since coronavirus border control measures were largely relaxed on Nov. 8, Japan is poised to accept technical intern trainees and foreign students. But concerns remain over infections resurging and lengthy procedures delaying arrivals.

    Although the easing of border restrictions is great news for institutions accepting individuals from overseas, time-consuming procedures mean some can only enter Japan after a few months. Parties working to accept foreign individuals are rushing to welcome them into the country, though anxiously due to uncertainties.

    "Just because border restrictions were relaxed doesn't mean they can come today or tomorrow. I suppose they'll be able to enter Japan sometime between the end of January and February next year," said Yohei Muto, 42, who handles procedures for accepting foreign technical interns as a project manager of the Fukuoka Joho Business Cooperatives. The non-commercial supervisory organization, authorized by the Japanese government, serves as a go-between for technical interns and food manufacturers and auto parts companies in southwest Japan's Kyushu region and the western Japan prefecture of Yamaguchi.

    As part of coronavirus prevention measures, the Japanese government started from February 2020 to ban foreigners' entry to the country based on its immigration law. It began with arrivals from China's Hubei province, and the list of banned regions later extended to include areas across the world including all of China, South Korea, Southeast Asia, the United States and Europe. Although restrictions on new entries by businesspeople, students, technical interns and other mid- to long-term visitors were eased in October 2020, they were fully suspended again from January 2021 during the third infection wave.

    Restrictions on technical interns' entries have caused labor shortages for companies. According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, 188,872 new technical interns entered the country in 2019, and 2020 saw 60% fewer, with 83,826 entries. In 2021, only 23,407 technical interns had newly entered Japan by the end of August, with just 13 admitted since February.

    Hundreds of thousands of technical interns are believed to be currently waiting to enter Japan, and the Fukuoka Joho Business Cooperatives alone is handling over 200 cases of waiting technical interns. The national government's strengthened border control is apparently complicating procedures.

    Before the pandemic, the organization only needed to obtain visas from Japanese embassies and other diplomatic establishments overseas after being issued a certificate of eligibility for residential status by the Immigration Services Agency, before technical interns entered Japan. But now, after receiving the certificate of eligibility, the organization must undergo a preliminary review by ministries and agencies governing companies accepting foreign interns. "This takes two to six weeks," Muto said. There have reportedly even been cases where procedures for visas, previously obtainable within 10 days, took over a month due to a flood of applications. "We estimate it will take interns two to three months to enter the country. We're worried a sixth infection wave might come in this time," said Muto.

    Universities accepting foreign students are also concerned. Nearly half of the around 5,700 students at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (Ritsumeikan APU), a private university in southwest Japan's Beppu, Oita Prefecture, are foreign students studying abroad in Japan. Of their about 2,700 foreign students enrolled, around 30% have been taking online lessons due to being unable to enter Japan.

    Among the university's foreign students waiting to enter Japan, 448 individuals who received certificates of eligibility for residential status between January 2020 and March 2021 will be able to come to the country following the recent border control measures' relaxation. The remaining 395 students, including those who planned to enroll from September 2021, do not yet know when they can enter Japan.

    A 20-year-old student from Nepal who has been locked out of Japan for about two years said, "I'm excited because I can go to Japan. I'm looking forward to meeting the professors and other students."

    (Japanese original by Yusaku Yoshikawa, Kumamoto Bureau, and Nao Ishii, Oita Bureau)

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