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Validity of Japan's border measures against foreigners in question as families separated

The arrival lobby of Narita International Airport is seen with few people on Nov. 30, 2021, following a ban on entry by foreign nationals due to the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

TOKYO -- Following the emergence of the coronavirus's omicron variant, Japan has enforced border control measures which in principle ban new entries by foreign nationals. Now, people separated from their families are calling on the government to attend to cases on humanitarian grounds while also taking thorough safety measures to prevent infection.

    The Mainichi Shimbun looked into the current border enforcement measures to thwart the new variant's threat while questioning their validity.

    "For over 30 years, I've continued to study the Japanese language and Japanese literature. Even though I've had such a long love affair with Japan, I'm subject to such treatment. I'd like them to let me meet my children soon," said Melek Ortabasi, 51, associate professor at Canada's Simon Fraser University and currently a visiting fellow researching modern Japanese children's literature at Kanagawa University.

    Japanese literature scholar Melek Ortabasi is seen during an interview conducted via Zoom.

    Ortabasi has not known for some time when she will be able to see her children currently in Canada. Although she was able to obtain residency status for herself and her three sons, her children's visa applications were rejected, and after contemplation she opted to come to Japan alone in late October. She asked her ex-husband to look after the children, and had intended to have them come to Japan after obtaining their visas.

    But her plans hit a snag when, following an omicron infection's confirmation in Japan at the end of November, the national government enforced restrictions which in principle ban new entries by foreign nationals.

    The Japan Foundation, which is assisting Ortabasi in her stay, has said her sons could enter Japan in February 2022 at the earliest. But there is no guarantee the family will be able to be reunited, and there are concerns the date will be postponed. "I'm devastated. My youngest is still 8 years old," Ortabasi said with a sigh.

    Ortabasi planned to work as a visiting professor at another university from the 2022 academic year, but she has also begun considering returning home if she is to be continuously separated from her children. "This is a matter of human rights. Though this would be damaging for my career, I don't know what to do other than go home," Ortabasi said.

    This photo provided by Japanese literature scholar Melek Ortabasi shows her sons during a visit to Japan in 2014.

    Since the coronavirus spread in Japan, the government has limited foreign nationals who are allowed entry to the country to spouses and children of Japanese nationals and permanent residents, residency status holders, people with circumstances for consideration on humanitarian grounds, and others. Apart from family of permanent residents and people with long-term resident status, foreign family members of foreign nationals staying in Japan for research or work are in principle prohibited from newly entering the country. The government did not make exceptions for the families of Japanese pro baseball team members and J-League soccer players, and a number of athletes left their teams or returned to their home countries. The government subsequently began allowing new entries by athletes' families in August 2021, by classing them as cases "with circumstances which should be considered on humanitarian grounds."

    But the situation worsened at the end of November when an omicron variant infection was found in Japan.

    Regarding regulations on exceptional cases exempting individuals from border restrictions, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the government intends to "operate them rigidly by taking measures including limiting entries to cases recognized as truly necessary." New arrivals could be subject to even more rigorous screening in future.

    In response, the World Health Organization's emergencies chief Mike Ryan criticized Japan's border control measures as "hard to understand" from an epidemiological standpoint. He claimed that by thoroughly conducting coronavirus tests before and after arrival, and ensuring people entering are placed in isolation after their arrival, it should be possible to curb the virus's spread.

    The recent border control measures also mean foreign nationals married to Japanese citizens cannot enter if they have not obtained a certificate of eligibility for long-term residency status certification. People with short-term stay visas became unable to enter from Dec. 2 onward even if they had been issued the visas before border restrictions were enforced at the end of November.

    Foreign nationals living in Japan who have been separated from family, as well as Japanese people with family who are foreign nationals, launched an online petition on Dec. 6 demanding the Japanese government review its border enforcement measures. The campaign also calls on the government to retract its decision to suspend issued visas' validity, and review the criteria for cases exempt from border restrictions. As of Dec. 21, over 10,000 individuals have expressed support.

    This screen capture from the website Change.org shows a page for an online signature-collecting campaign which calls for the Japanese government to review border restrictions.

    Artist Takashi Arai, 43, one of the people who initiated the petition, has a German wife who is unable to enter Japan. Although she had planned to leave Germany for Japan on a short-term stay visa on Dec. 3, her visa was invalidated shortly before her scheduled departure. Arai stated, "We're not demanding the entry ban be unconditionally lifted. An alternative method that doesn't infringe on human rights needs to be found. Instead of applying an entry ban across the board, we want flexible and humanitarian measures while ensuring effective anti-infection measures."

    Ortabasi, who has been separated from her sons for a prolonged period, began studying Japanese in the 1980s. It was around the time Japan was showing global presence as an economic power. Recalling the elective Japanese language classes at her high school in Australia, she said, "For myself, who was crazy about Hello Kitty, learning Japanese was a decision that was made naturally." She was also hooked on works by female authors Banana Yoshimoto and Yoko Tawada, and became captivated by Japanese literature. She said, "Japan and its people, who were promoting themselves to the world -- All of these added up to who I am today."

    However, she expressed disappointment that Japan today is "too inward-looking, and its international reputation is only on the decline."

    She remarked, "I've been a bookworm since I was a young girl, so I'll probably love Japanese literature until my death, and nothing can get in the way of that. But, I sometimes wonder. Why did I pick a country that apparently doesn't love me back?"

    (Japanese original by Motomi Kusakabe, Foreign News Department)

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