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US academics pen letter to Japan PM Kishida calling for border reopening to int. students

Narita Airport Terminal 3 is seen largely devoid of people on a weekday afternoon, on Jan. 14, 2022, in this file image taken in the Chiba Prefecture city of Narita. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

TOKYO -- It's two years into the pandemic and the vast majority of foreign students aiming to study in Japan are still blocked from entering the country by strict pandemic border measures.

    Fueled by concern of further damage to relations between Japan and U.S. higher education institutions, and to international ties in the long term, a group of scholars, educators and policy practitioners in the United States and elsewhere submitted a letter to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Jan. 19 calling for border policy to be modified to allow students and other non-tourists in as soon as possible.

    Self-funded study abroad students have been continually put off from entering Japan during the pandemic. If current policies remain in place, they face a wait until at least the end of February before they can enter. But this pales in comparison with how long they have had to wait until now. With the exception of a sudden, brief four-month window from October 2020 to January 2021, the borders have been closed to almost all students since the coronavirus pandemic began in earnest in spring 2020.

    A controversial, phased plan announced in November 2021 bringing in students gradually based on their certificate of eligibility's (COE) issue date was also effectively nullified on Nov. 29, 2021, when Japan returned to a hardline response to block the omicron variant.

    With no idea exactly when students might be let in, and no guarantees the Japanese government won't suddenly reverse its border policy again even if it did open up, senior members of the U.S-Japan community signed in a personal capacity the letter to Kishida. Ahead of a virtual meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Kishida on Jan. 21 Eastern Standard Time, a press conference providing further insight into the issues they are witnessing was also held on Jan. 20 Eastern Standard Time.

    The panel hosted by the New York-based Japan Society was chaired by Susan J. Pharr, the Edwin O. Reischauer professor of Japanese politics at Harvard University, and numerous speakers offered their perspective, including David Janes, president and CEO of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Foundation, associate professor Phillip Lipscy at the University of Toronto, and Crystal Pryor, vice president at the Pacific Forum in Honolulu.

    Pharr stressed that the group shares concerns about infections, but that Japan's approach has caused great hardship to some of its closest friends.

    Leonard Schoppa, professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a senior adviser to the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future, highlighted the long-term effect of the bans, and said that activities including summer programs will be canceled, and that many academics will struggle to raise funds for overseas research in the timeframe available.

    Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Asia Pacific Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, mentioned that some damage has already been done to this year's opportunities for exchange and closer ties, among them exchanges between legislative personnel and artists. She stressed that many of the decisions made in the last several months will have long-lasting repercussions.

    Janes expressed concern for the long-term consequences of failing to foster interest --something he said data would struggle to capture. He pointed to activities at high school level and the curtailment of trips to Japan that help generate the next cohort of college students. He added that while some data is available, a long-term failure to shape mindsets in middle school or high school will pose issues later.

    Adam Liff, an associate professor in East Asian international relations at Indiana University, encouraged thinking of students shut out as falling into two broad camps; those who have applied and aren't allowed in, and those who haven't even tried to come to Japan because they know it's not possible. He stressed that they are not tourists, and can't just make decisions on a whim given what a huge economic and life commitment study abroad constitutes.

    Schoppa did add that the Jan. 17 announcement that 87 government-sponsored foreign students will be permitted entry did suggest the Kishida administration is responding to the issue, but said he hopes the Japanese government considers the costs of doing things step-by-step.

    (By Peter Masheter, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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