TOKYO (AP) -- Next week Japan will ease tough coronavirus border controls that have been criticized as xenophobic and damaging to the economy. The new rules, however, provide only a slight improvement: 5,000 new entrants per day, instead of the current 3,500, and nowhere near the estimated 64,000 a day that were entering for long-term visits before the pandemic.
The 5,000 daily arrivals also includes Japanese nationals returning to the country, which means hundreds of thousands of foreigners will still struggle to enter.
An estimated half million foreign students, teachers, workers accredited as technical interns and business travelers have been locked out and waiting to get in for nearly two years. Under the policy that takes effect March 1, it would take several more months of patience before everyone can get in.
"It's still better than nothing," said Jommy Kwok, who has missed nearly all of her first year of post-graduate classes in atmospheric science at Hokkaido University.
Kwok was the only one in her class who had to take classes and do research online while remaining in Hong Kong. Her 20 classmates returned to the campus when coronavirus infections slowed rapidly late last year, before the more recent omicron wave. "I have been quite left out," she said in an online interview.
She hopes to arrive in Japan before the new school year starts in April and take more classes to catch up as much as possible before her scheduled graduation next year. She may also continue studies for a doctoral degree in Japan.
But she has competition. About 150,000 foreign students and scholars are waiting to enter.
Japan has banned nearly all entries of non-resident foreigners since early in the pandemic. The country announced an easing in November but quickly reversed that decision after the omicron variant emerged elsewhere in the world.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan will consider a further relaxation of border controls based on a scientific assessment of the omicron variant, infection levels in and outside Japan, and other countries' quarantine measures.
The long wait has already hurt many people, both mentally and financially. Some have changed the focus of their studies, their careers and their life plans.
Critics have compared Japan's strict and prolonged border measures to the "sakoku" locked-country policy of the xenophobic warlords who ruled the country in the 17th to 19th centuries. Some say it hurts Japan's national interests by locking out skilled foreigners who could bring valuable ideas, business and work to the country.
"I am wishing to contribute to society if I decide to stay" in Japan, Kwok said.
Japanese and foreign business groups have also protested to the government, saying the border closure has delayed investment, business deals, product development and deliveries.
According to a recent survey by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry of German companies in Japan, 73 of 100 respondents said they saw their project and business volume in danger because of the entry ban, while 23 said they had already lost business worth more than $113 million.
The absence of foreign students meant a loss of tuition for universities and language schools, while farming, construction, nursing and convenience stores that have depended on foreign workers faced serious staffing shortages, according to Takahide Kiuchi, executive economist at the Nomura Research Institute.
Their return under the daily entry cap of 5,000 could contribute an estimated 1.6 trillion yen ($14 billion) of annual economic gain, or 0.2% of Japan's GDP, in the short term, Kiuchi said.
Under the restrictions, Japan also might have missed future business partners because foreign companies that consider the border measures a risk factor might avoid business or investment here, he said.
While COVID-19 infections are slowing, daily fatalities surged above 270 on Tuesday, a record since the pandemic began, according to the health ministry. Japan has recorded more than 22,000 deaths, significantly lower than in many countries.
But most of Japan is still under virus-related restrictions as infections continue to burden the medical system, which tends to be overwhelmed easily because COVID-19 treatment is limited to public or major hospitals.
Experts generally agree that Japan's quick tightening of its border in late November was good crisis management, but that keeping the doors shut as omicron infections spread within Japan was meaningless.
"At this point, the damage is greater than the benefit," said Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chairman Akio Mimura, who called for a further easing of the daily entry cap. Mimura, noting widespread public support for tough border measures, urged the government to raise awareness that the policy is harming parts of society.
Business leaders are also calling for a resumption of tourism at some point to revive the badly hurt industry. Foreign tourism fell more than 90% in 2020 from the year before, almost wiping out the pre-pandemic inbound tourism market of about 4 trillion yen ($34 billion).
Education Minister Shinsuke Suematsu said last week that Japan is trying to allow in as many foreign students as possible before the April start of the new academic year, but "it will still take a significant amount of time before everyone can get in."
The new border measures won't help Stefano Piras, who is in Italy and hasn't been able to visit his Japanese fiancee for more than a year.
The couple met in late 2019 in London, just before the pandemic. After about a year, they decided to get married, and Piras returned to Italy to prepare for his move to Japan.
Piras wanted to meet with her parents and get married in Japan, but to do so he has to obtain a tourist visa, which under the current border policy is impossible. Now he thinks getting a marriage certificate and a spouse visa is the only way he can be reunited with her in Japan.
"You're born, you get married and you have a family. It's one of the three most important things in your life," Piras said in an online interview from Sardinia. He laments that he has to burden his fiancee with paperwork in Japan, instead of working together on the marriage.
Having lived in Osaka for two years as a Japanese language student, Piras was aware of Japan's tendency to be wary of outsiders, but "it was a shock that they are still so closed. ... It's like saying Japanese are OK but we (foreigners) are not OK. We bring sickness and Japanese are the pure ones."
Still, Piras hasn't lost his love of Japanese culture and people. He calls Japan "my second home."
But first he has to get back in.