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Japan's COVID border restrictions keeping families apart, affecting relationships: group

The nearly empty arrivals lobby of Narita International Airport is seen on Nov. 30, 2021, following a ban on entry by foreign nationals due to the spread of the coronavirus's omicron variant. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

TOKYO -- Amid severe restrictions on new entries by foreign nationals to Japan introduced in November 2021 following confirmation of the coronavirus's omicron variant in the country, numerous cases have been reported of both foreign residents of Japan and Japanese citizens being separated from non-Japanese family.

    A group in Japan led by people separated from overseas family members by Japan's current pandemic border restrictions submitted a petition on Jan. 6 with about 12,000 signatures demanding the government relax the controls. The group launched the signature drive on in early December. The signatures along with a written request were addressed to Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi.

    The petition's specific demands included that the government restore visas that were suspended despite being issued prior to the controls, review regulations on exceptional entry cases, and clearly specify the time frame for resuming new visa applications.

    Why did the group decide to take this action? After the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, the Japanese government banned new entries by foreign nationals in principle, except for spouses and children of Japanese nationals and permanent residents, residency status holders, and exceptions on humanitarian and other special grounds. But the latest restrictions even ban spouses of Japanese citizens from coming in if they do not have a long-term residency eligibility certificate. Short-term visas issued before the new border restrictions were imposed have also been invalidated, leaving many unable to get into the country.

    The group held an online press conference after submitting the petition. Melek Ortabasi, a 51-year-old Japanese literature researcher at Kanagawa University, has not seen her three sons in her home country of Canada since October 2021. After repeatedly petitioning the Japanese government, saying she has "circumstances necessitating an urgent reunion," visas for her sons were issued in late December.

    This photo provided by Melek Ortabasi shows a group behind a petition demanding a review of Japan's border control measures submitting the signatures and a written request to a Japanese Foreign Ministry official, left, on Jan. 6, 2022.

    "I was exhausted these past few months," Ortabasi said at the press conference. "I wouldn't want anyone to experience this, and would like more people to know about this situation."

    Although Ortabasi's sons ultimately got visas as an exceptional case, visa application screenings have in general grown stricter. Applications are not accepted unless family members are in critical conditions or for other "consequential crises on humanitarian grounds."

    Isami Sawai, a research fellow at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, who is familiar with the entry requirements for foreigners, also signed the petition. He commented at the press conference, "Even from a public health viewpoint, I don't think there's any point in differentiating how individuals are treated based on nationality." He added, "Upholding a blanket entry ban on foreign nationals may aggravate xenophobic sentiments within Japan."

    According to a survey conducted by the group, 160 respondents answered that they "suffered mental or physical damage" from the prolonged, enforced time apart from family and other reasons. There were reportedly even cases that ended in divorce.

    Artist Takashi Arai, 43, who attended the news conference, has a German wife who planned to visit Japan in December 2021 and has been continuously barred from the country. He said more than once, "It's not that we want the border restrictions to be completely lifted," but he also pointed to the struggles of those impacted by the controls who are "stuck waiting, without any relief, explanations or information."

    Members of a group that submitted a petition demanding that the Japanese government ease border restrictions attend an online press conference on Jan. 6, 2022, as seen in this image taken from web conferencing service Zoom.

    Arai said, "Meanwhile, there have been many problems, while Japan's image overseas has gotten worse," and called for improvements to the situation.

    And even as most foreign nationals are being kept out of Japan, U.S. military personnel have spread the virus around bases in Japan after arriving without having taken coronavirus tests. Touching on this, Arai commented, "This is an issue related to border control and anti-infection measures under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, and cannot be regarded in the same way as our cases. But I honestly feel conflicted about it."

    (Japanese original by Motomi Kusakabe, Foreign News Department)

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