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Japan's prolonged 'isolationist' border policy forces would-be foreign students to give up

Acaua Akira Ribeiro, seen in a photo provided by himself.

SENDAI -- Starting next month, the Japanese government will review its coronavirus border policy of restricting entry of foreigners into the country. But there are people who have had to give up on their dreams while foreigners have been effectively banned from coming into Japan. Japanese Brazilian Acaua Akira Ribeiro, who gave up studying at a Japanese language school after nearly a year's wait, is one of them.

    The 32-year-old, 3rd generation Japanese Brazilian grew up learning about Japanese culture from his grandfather, who was from Kyoto, and his grandmother, who was from Hokkaido. He also participated in events with other people of Japanese ancestry. He felt a close affinity to Japan, and hoped to one day visit and meet his relatives.

    His American wife, Jessica, 29, has also been interested in Japanese culture and anime from a young age. They planned to study Japanese here, and to stay in the country afterward, with Akira working as an English teacher and Jessica going to graduate school to earn a master's degree in linguistics.

    They decided that they'd start studying Japanese at the language school Mirai no Mori Gakuen in Sendai in April 2021. By March, they'd been issued resident eligibility authorizations. They quit their jobs and sold their car, and let go of their apartment in Sao Paulo. But no matter how long they waited, their visa applications were not approved. The Tokyo Summer Olympics were held a year late, so they figured it was a necessary measure to curb the spread of coronavirus infections, and waited patiently.

    When entry restrictions were relaxed temporarily in November 2021, the couple said they got excited. But shortly thereafter, foreigners were again banned in principle from coming to Japan out of fears over the omicron variant. Akira pointed out that Japanese people can go to other countries whenever they wish, and said that it's not fair that Japan does not allow any foreigners in.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) has advised member states to relax or abolish restrictions on travel, saying that they are ineffective in stemming the virus' spread. While other countries opened their borders, Japan remained isolationist. And yet, the number of COVID-19 cases in Japan reached record highs.

    During this time, Akira and Jessica stayed with Akira's parents, and waited for good news to come while teaching English online. But when Japan decided to extend its border measures for the second time in early 2022, they decided they could no longer wait. Considering their ages and their lives going forward, they informed the language school in Sendai that they were going to give up enrolling, and began looking for work in Sao Paulo.

    In late January, Akira sent a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. In it, he wrote that foreign students have deep admiration for Japan and wish to go there. But unless the situation changes, the praise people have for Japan will be lost, which will have an impact on how Japan is seen overseas.

    Akira, left, and Jessica stand by a cherry tree in a photo taken in Washington, D.C., in 2018, when they visited the United States. (Photo courtesy of Acaua Akira Ribeiro)

    According to Toru Yuki, 73, the principal of the Mirai no Mori Gakuen language school that Akira and Jessica had planned on attending, around 180 would-be students, primarily based in Asia, are waiting to get into Japan to study at the school. Due to the drawn-out border restrictions, eight students have given up on studying in Japan or have switched to other countries since November 2021.

    Prime Minister Kishida announced Feb. 17 that he would relax border control measures and allow businesspeople and foreign students into Japan. However, Mirai no Mori Gakuen says it has not been notified of the policy change by related government ministries or agencies. "I'm watching everything unfold with uncertainty," Yuki said.

    This is because of what he experienced last fall. In response to the government's large-scale relaxation of entry restrictions on Nov. 8, 2021, the school began preparing to accept students. But three weeks later, the government backtracked and essentially stopped the new entry of foreign nationals yet again.

    According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, the number of foreign nationals who have been issued resident eligibility authorization but have been unable to enter Japan was around 400,000 as of Jan. 4, 2022, of which some 150,000 were students.

    The Japanese government will raise the number of foreign nationals entering the country per day starting in March, but total arrivals will be capped at 5,000, a mere 1,500 more than the current limit -- which gives Akira and Jessica no way to know when they would be able to make it into the country. Akira lamented that the decision hadn't been made earlier, adding that even with 5,000 people per day allowed in, it might be the middle of 2022 before the couple could get to Japan.

    Principal Yuki of the language school worries about what the current situation suggests. "(The government) doesn't realize that only Japan is behaving abnormally. The government seems to think that strict border policies will make it popular with the public, but from the perspective of people overseas, it's simply selfish. This will cause immeasurable losses."

    (Japanese original by Mie Omokawa, Sendai Bureau)

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