Foreign students set to return but damage ‘already done’

Japan is set to ease its stringent COVID-19 entry ban on foreigners next month ahead of the new university academic year on 1 April.

Strict border controls have kept out thousands of international university students, dealing a blow to the internationalisation of Japan’s higher education, and many universities are concerned that damage has already been done to Japan’s reputation as a country that welcomes international students.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the changes on 17 February, to start from early March, following growing pressure from Japanese universities and businesses that have been impacted negatively, and an international campaign by foreign students to allow them back in.

Foreign students have been locked out of Japan since April 2020 with only a brief easing of restrictions in November 2021. But restrictions were suddenly reinstated on 30 November – just weeks after they were eased on 8 November – as the new Omicron variant emerged in Japan.

Locked-out international students regarded the measures as discriminatory and unfair, while local media saw them as politically motivated rather than purely health-related measures.

Around 400,000 foreign nationals – including students and trainees – have not been able to enter the country as a result of the border controls.

The latest measures shorten quarantine periods for those who have been vaccinated and tested to three days from the current seven and permits those arriving from countries where the coronavirus is not spreading rapidly to skip the measures.

Kishida said Japan will reopen gradually but has maintained that imposing the strict border restrictions helped delay the spread of the Omicron variant. In fact, it spread rapidly in Japan in recent weeks, triggering the worst infection and death rates since the pandemic began.

Despite Kishida’s latest announcement, experts remain pessimistic and some said the easing has come “too late”. They point to lack of details about the procedures, fears that the government may reverse the decision as they did in November last year, and delays as universities struggle with the red tape that has left a big backlog of students waiting for visas.

Last week the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan expressed support for the long-awaited change as “a significant step” to address the urgent needs of businesses and students. Their 17 February statement added that it is “critical that the government greatly streamlines application and visa processing”.

Huge backlog waiting to enter

Even with the latest easing, there is a backlog of 150,000 already-approved students still waiting to enter, and experts contend the daily cap – slightly raised to 5,000 from 3,500 entries including business entries – means it will take months before students will actually be on campuses.

Measures covering quarantine periods, vaccine passports and the limits on the number of foreigners allowed to enter, have been fluctuating based on Japan’s infection and death rates. The latest antivirus steps which started at the end of November, are scheduled to last at least until the end of February.

Japan’s sixth wave puts Omicron virus infections at around 12,000 daily in Japan this week – a drop from the high of over 100,000 reported in early February. But the government remains cautious.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara told media on 15 February that the easing of border controls and quarantine checks depends on many things including securing hospital beds and steps to prevent infection clusters among the elderly.

University heads have warned the education ministry that hold-ups in getting foreign students back into the country could lead to a loss of interest in studying in Japan which could have a longer-term impact, and have the knock-on effect of a more inward-looking mentality among Japanese students.

Yumiko Hada, dean of graduate studies in the English studies department at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto, said she is worried that more students will turn away from coming to Japan and pointed to a “sense of crisis” in universities in Japan as a result of the entry ban.

And it has had a knock-on effect on local students applying. “There is a drop in applications from Japanese students to my department this year – almost half the number compared to 2020. This is because young people find it less attractive to study English without international students present,” she said.

Takahisa Miyauchi, dean of Kanda University of International Studies, a private institution in Chiba, is worried Japan will be regarded as a “fortress” as more foreign students give up trying to enter Japan in time for the April academic year.

His university has been affected by the entry ban, including the language and culture programme which has foreign students, mainly from the West and Asia, coming to study for one year under a university entrance preparatory course.

Local media has reported countless stories of foreign students losing their scholarships to study in Japan because of the entry ban, and frustration and mental stress from long hours of studying online. Some students even decided to study elsewhere, such as in South Korea which has looser controls.

On 9 February, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) held an education subcommittee meeting at their party headquarters where the importance of resuming entry for foreign students was brought up.

“Foreign students who can’t come to Japan are choosing other countries, which is damaging Japan’s international reputation,” said Tomohiro Yamamoto, head of the LDP’s education policy committee. “There are cases in which Japanese exchange students have been turned down because of it. It affects our national interests.”

Unwelcoming image

Japan also faces the deeper challenge of softening its unwelcoming image from the entry ban. Although a Kyodo News survey last Sunday revealed Kishida’s ban on foreign entries was approved of by the majority of the public – 54% saw it as a viable virus countermeasure – experts note it could have longer-term implications for Japan’s soft power and attempts to internationalise its universities.

“The pandemic has shut out international students. Border control treats them like superspreaders of the COVID virus instead of the ‘superspreaders’ of global education that they are,” said Nancy Snow, a well-known media commentator and international scholar who until recently taught public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.

“Japan is facing yet another calendar year with few international students starting on campus in April this year,” Snow noted.

With experience teaching in Japan for many years, Snow vouches for the positive influence of foreign students on Japanese students. “I was hired in Japanese universities to encourage students to voice their opinions and participate in a stimulated discussion on the topics they are studying. This can only happen best when there are diverse opinions offered by students from abroad,” she explained.

Contrary to internationalisation policies

For critics, strict limits imposed on foreign students also fly in the face of policies intended to increase their number at Japanese universities. Higher education internationalisation was promoted as key to creating a multicultural employment base for Japanese companies to meet globalisation demands.

Japan’s former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in 2014 declared a goal of hosting 300,000 international students by 2020, employing more international faculty and supporting Japanese students to study abroad. The mission was to globalise higher education and improve Japanese universities’ global rankings that had begun to fall behind Asian countries such as China and Singapore.

Notably, Japan launched its ‘superglobal’ Global 30 programme, providing subsidies to boost the international ranking of Japanese universities to the top 10 in the world by promoting world-leading education and research. Top national and private universities were selected to foster diversity and expand English-language curriculums.

Progress has been slow or even going into reverse – in 2020, Japan’s top university, the University of Tokyo slipped to 34th position in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings from 27th in 2013, its highest rank in recent years.

Kanda University’s Miyauchi emphasised fostering internationalisation through foreign students and faculty, even though at his own institution foreign students are only 2% of the 4,000-strong student body.

“Japan’s paternalistic society that requires everyone to follow the same line needs to be changed by exposing its youth to international diversity. Studying with students from diverse backgrounds is therefore critical for the survival of our next generations,” he said.

Miyauchi decided to go ahead with sending his first-year students on a study programme to Lithuania this month despite the COVID-19 situation. In 2020 the university launched a Japan studies section under its global liberal arts faculty that hosts short student exchanges with India, Israel, Lithuania and Malaysia.

“The exchanges over two or three weeks are extremely popular with students. They return empowered by learning about multi-ethnicity, grassroots peace and conflict prevention and poverty eradication. These are opportunities not available in Japan where the curriculum is focused on listening to lectures by professors,” he said.

The pandemic has also highlighted another limitation on Japan’s internationalisation. Experts point out that half of the foreign students accepted in Japan are enrolled in short-term Japanese language schools and work as part-timers.

“These students, mostly from less economically strong Asian countries, provide valuable cheap labour for Japanese companies such as in convenience stories and hotels. That objective does not necessarily meet the official target of creating skilled foreigners who can contribute to the global needs of Japanese companies,” said Miyauchi.