Japan’s border crackdown leaves students in limbo and the economy in a pinch

A passerby wearing a protective face mask walks through an alley of an izakaya pub, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Tokyo, Japan January 25, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato

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TOKYO, Jan 26 (Reuters) – Two years after Japan locked its borders to block the coronavirus, some 150,000 foreign students are still unable to enter the country, left in limbo by a policy that has disrupted lives and caused headaches for universities. and businesses.

The absence of foreign students and researchers is felt from large labs to small private universities, underscoring the importance of foreign talent – and their tuition – as Japan grapples with a declining population.

While the virus shutdown policy has proved popular for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, some business leaders have warned of the economic impact, especially as the job market is tight.

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What is less clear is the longer-term impact on Japan’s “soft power” – particularly its academic reputation around the world.

At the Riken Research Institute, geneticist Piero Carninci says he sees the impact firsthand. Japan lacks bioinformatics researchers essential for genomic studies, but it has been unable to fill the void with foreign talent in the past two years.

“My lab, for sure, is slowing down and our center for this kind of analysis. We’re struggling,” said Carninci, deputy director of Riken, whose award-winning genetics research has been cited in 60,000 articles.

“The internationalization of science is certainly essential, because you don’t have all the expertise in the same country.”

Many countries have closed their borders to keep the coronavirus at bay.

The United States saw international student enrollment fall 43% in fall 2020 from the previous year, while some 80,000 immigrant worker visas expired without being used last year.

But Japan stands out with the tightest borders among the Group of Seven countries, effectively banning all new non-residents since March 2020. Only China, with its goal of zero COVID-19, has been more closed off among the major savings.

The stakes are high. A government-affiliated study showed that Japan fell to 10th place in the world in publishing outstanding scientific papers last year, just behind India. Twenty years ago it was number four.


Nearly half of Japan’s four-year private universities failed to fill all the places for freshmen in 2021, up 15 percentage points from the previous year, according to an official from the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan, which represents private educators.

While the main reason was a drop in the number of Japanese students, the drop in the number of foreign students was also felt, the official said.

More than 100 scholars and international relations experts signed a letter asking Kishida to reopen the borders last week. Excluded people have demonstrated outside Japanese embassies and an online petition calling for the admission of students and workers has more than 33,000 signatures.

The government said last week it would make an exception and allow 87 state-sponsored students.

“It’s a giant goal for Japan after decades of masterful use of soft power,” said Wesley Cheek, a sociologist who recently left Japan for a research post in Britain.

“People like me, who typically apply for grants to continue our research in Japan, just need to take a pass for the foreseeable future.”

International students can work part-time in Japan and have traditionally provided a pool of what the Japanese call “odd jobs” workers in places like convenience stores, in a country that has long been reluctant to let in foreign workers.

Even before the coronavirus, there weren’t enough international students to meet labor demand, said Yohei Shibasaki, an international recruitment consultant for service and technology companies.

He estimated that there were around 170,000 trade and language school students in Japan before the pandemic, most of whom worked part-time.

Hiroshi Mikitani, chief executive of e-commerce group Rakuten, which hires foreign engineers, said the restrictions should be reconsidered as they were virtually ineffective and were “just an inconvenience to the economy”.

The plight of international students, some of whom have dreamed of studying for years, can be heartbreaking.

On social media and in interviews, they described paying tuition for classes they took online in the middle of the night, losing scholarships, and months of stress waiting for change. .

Some have exhausted their savings. Some have given up and gone elsewhere.

Japan is no longer the top study and research destination in East Asia, with more students now heading to South Korea, said Davide Rossi, who runs a study promotion agency at the stranger.

Sujin Song, 20, a science student from South Korea, lost her scholarship but is trying to do lab work for her online classes. She was again barred from entering Japan in November.

“I really liked Japan, but now I feel betrayed,” Song said.

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Reporting by Rocky Swift and Elaine Lies, Writing by Rocky Swift; Editing by David Dolan, Robert Birsel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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