“This is the first, but very significant step towards opening up Japan.”

Welcome to Japan?

The travel ban has been lifted but non-Japanese still face unequal treatment


September 2020 Feature / Text by Gavin Blair

At the beginning of April, the government of Japan imposed a ban on entry and re-entry into the country as part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, but this move would ultimately leave an estimated 190,000 permanent and long-term non-Japanese residents stranded abroad. After nearly five months of petitioning by foreign business groups, including the European Business Council in Japan (EBC), the government announced on 28 August that foreign nationals with residence status in Japan can from 1 September travel in and out of the country in almost the same way Japanese citizens have been able to.

One of those stuck outside the country by the ban was former head of Novo Nordisk Japan, Claus Eilersen, who since 2015 has been working as a consultant, advisor, and investor in startups, mostly in the healthcare sector. He was on a business trip to Europe when the travel ban was announced but, with some outstanding business matters still on his plate, he decided not to rush back to Japan before the borders closed.

Speaking just before the ban was lifted, Eilersen explained that he had been in Denmark for nearly six months. All this time, he has been paying rent on his Tokyo apartment and said, via a Zoom call, he has been lucky to have someone to keep an eye on it and not to be in dire financial straits like some of those affected.
He has also been able to keep working to some extent using video conferencing, he noted, but that it is not a complete “replacement for face-to-face meetings”.

Eilersen acknowledged that “each country has the prerogative to respond as it sees fit” to the pandemic, but said the situation had left him unsettled after having lived in Japan for a total of 20 years.

The whole episode has certainly not helped the image of Japan — the only G7 country denying reentry based on nationality — especially as it has been working to make the country more attractive to foreign investment, companies, and students.

Although the government’s recent policy shift has been largely welcomed by the foreign business community and non-Japanese residents, some restrictions remain.

“I am happy to see that foreign residents of Japan are now able to, not only come back to Japan, but also leave and re-enter,” says Michael Mroczek, president of the EBC. “This is the first, but very significant step towards opening up Japan.”

However, Mroczek expressed concerns about the procedures still required for international travel by foreign residents, but not Japanese nationals. These involve having to register details of trips with the immigration authorities and receiving written approval, which must then be shown when leaving the country. It is not yet clear whether immigration would refuse to issue such approval in some cases.

Foreign residents also have to show proof of a negative test for Covid-19, issued within 72 hours before returning to Japan. This creates a situation whereby a family consisting of Japanese and non-Japanese could travel to the same place, interact with the same people, but be treated differently on their return.
“We do not see the medical reasoning behind this decision,” says Mroczek.
All returnees have to self-isolate for 14 days and cannot take public transport back from the airport.

“Furthermore, the EBC will continue to advocate for new visa holders to be allowed to enter Japan,” he adds. “This is crucial so that our European companies can send new executives to Japan, or new staff, to develop new or existing investments. Ultimately, we also aim to have, on a case-by-case basis, short-term visitors — such as engineers, designers, business people, et cetera — be allowed to enter Japan.”

The ban on short-term business travel has impacted Japan’s oldest foreign company K.K. Irisu, founded in 1859 on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki, one of the few places where westerners were allowed to operate during Japan’s sakoku ‘closed country’ period.

The company sells and installs industrial equipment, and while it has been able to carry on most projects with its personnel in Japan and through engineers working remotely via video conferences, some complex jobs requiring highly specialised technicians to be onsite have ground to a halt.

With the support of the German embassy and chamber of commerce, Irisu was able to meet with Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) officials to plead its case, explains Hartmut Pannen, the firm’s vice president. Irisu was also fortunate to have a representative of a big-name Japanese company that is being affected accompany its executives to the meeting. Pannen says the METI officials “perfectly understood the dilemma” and took the matter to the foreign ministry, though Irisu is still waiting for a response.

“It’s like sakoku again,” he says. “The potential long-term impact is that companies will think twice about investing in Japan. It is now on the ‘risk list’, which it never was before.”

Japanese firms are also taking a hit after Germany withdrew permission for Japanese businesspeople to enter the country, a few weeks after Japan’s travel ban was imposed, due to the lack of reciprocity, notes Pannen.

“Japanese businesses are missing all kinds of conferences, meetings, and business opportunities,” he adds. “So many of those companies that do business with Europe are now restricted to web meetings.”

However, Pannen emphasises that the Japanese authorities have been very supportive in expediting some of the processes required to keep their business moving during the pandemic.

“I’m amazed at how fast Japanese bureaucracy has handled things; it’s been very smooth, faster than Germany,” he says. “It’s just the shutting out of people that is a black spot on a nice white shirt.” •

“The potential long-term impact is that companies will think twice about investing in Japan”