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Japan's sudden new foreign student entry ban leaves language schools dejected, frustrated

A vacant classroom at Fukuoka Japanese Language School, which has been affected by coronavirus border control measures, is seen in the city of Fukuoka's Minami Ward on Nov. 29, 2021. (Mainichi/Yoshiyuki Hirakawa)

The emergence of the new omicron coronavirus variant overseas has locked foreign students out of Japan again just three weeks after coronavirus border restrictions were largely relaxed on Nov. 8.

    Institutions that were ready to welcome the students are hugely disappointed by the government's border control measures enforced from Nov. 30, which in principle ban new entries by foreign nationals.

    The Osaka YMCA International College's Japanese language department supervisor expressed astonishment: "This is unexpected. On the ground, we've been moving forward with all kinds of application work for students to enter the country ..." It apparently has about 50 students waiting for their opportunity to enter Japan while taking online lessons from their home countries. The supervisor said, "We want to know how long the entry restrictions are for, and the reasoning behind them. We're at a loss, as the central government hasn't given instructions."

    An Osaka YMCA Gakuin employee said, "It's a bolt from the blue. In normal years, we have a new admissions intake in January too, but I expect this year's outlook is hopeless." Because the Japanese government banned foreign students' entries as a general rule for nearly a year from the end of 2020, the academy's student numbers more than halved from some 420 in October 2019 to about 200 students as of November 2021.

    "We can't run the school with no students. I worry if they'll make it to Japan by April, when there are the most enrollments," they said. A staff member at another international school in Osaka Prefecture told the Mainichi Shimbun: "There were students planning to go back to their home countries during this year's winter vacation, but that will probably be difficult after the recent policy change."

    A woman in her 30s from Southeast Asia who studies design at a private graduate school in Tokyo has been taking online courses in her home country since enrolling in April. She attends lectures in the early morning due to time differences, cannot engage in practical design production, and faces other issues that she says make her sad and leave her with mixed feelings. Before the entry bans were reintroduced, she had intended to come to Japan in the beginning of 2022. Expressing her disappointment, she said, "I only have one year of school left, and there's no point of studying abroad if I can't go to Japan to study."

    Fukuoka Japanese Language School principal Hiroki Nagata said they were dejected upon seeing the news. "I'm in shock. I feel like we've been suddenly confined to darkness just as we thought we could see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

    The school usually has about 400 students from Vietnam, China and India, but currently only 100 are studying on site. About 250 more cannot enter Japan despite having paid tuition. Of its 14 classrooms, three are currently in use. The others are lined with empty desks.

    Principal Nagata said, "If the students are again subject to a situation where they can't tell when they can come to Japan, then some might give up on enrollment and demand their tuition be refunded." He added, "Our business management will be in a critical state," and insisted the school needs financial assistance.

    Tokyo-based nonprofit International Foreign Students Association said that since 2021 began, there have been students who abandoned studying in Japan or opted to study in a different country. The association's administrative office head Itsue Shimizu said, "Rather than shutting out foreign students across the board, I want the government to respond with tough infection countermeasures while also creating a path for students to be able to enter the country."

    (Japanese original by Saori Moriguchi, Osaka City News Department, Richi Tanaka, Tokyo City News Department, and Hiroshi Higa, Kyushu News Department)

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