Photo/Illutration Foreign students study at a Japanese language school in Osaka in January. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japan last week loosened border controls that had been tightened to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and resumed allowing new entry to foreign nationals of certain categories.

Some have raised concerns about opening the door at a time when the caseload of infections is increasing again elsewhere in the world, particularly in Europe.

That said, continuing to block the comings and goings of people would have even more serious consequences for those in various walks of life.

Bearing in mind that the COVID-19 situation is no longer as dire as it was until summer with the spread of vaccines and other factors, we should seriously consider how to meet the double requirements of preventing infections and resuming exchanges with the rest of the world and make the necessary arrangements.

Since January, foreigners have been allowed entry to Japan only if they have “special exceptional circumstances,” such as humanitarian reasons, although exceptions were made for athletes and officials participating in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

The latest relaxation of the entry restrictions applies to businesspeople on short-term visits, technical intern trainees and students.

However, arrivals will continue to be capped at 3,500 a day, including those under these three categories, for the time being.

Rebuilding economic activities is one of the biggest challenges facing our society and is garnering a lot of attention. At the same time, we should take a good look at the circumstances and future prospects of young people aspiring to study in Japan.

More than 120,000 foreign students entered Japan every year from 2017 through 2019, but the figure plunged below 50,000 last year because of the pandemic.

This year, entry has been allowed only to government-financed overseas students, who account for a tiny fraction of the total number.

Self-financed foreign students remain stuck in their home countries. They may have access to online lectures and guidance, but it goes without saying there are limits to what can be achieved through those measures.

Japan is the only nation in the Group of Seven that has enacted such strict COVID-19 countermeasures. Some students have given up on coming to Japan and turned to other countries to study in.

The negative influence of that trend may not be immediately perceived.

However, having foreign students over here is a foundation for deepening international exchanges, for increasing those knowledgeable about Japan abroad and for ensuring the competitiveness of Japan’s education and research.

Continued entry restrictions on foreign students will cause substantial losses to the Japanese themselves, not to speak of the students bereft of opportunities for studying.

Education does not amount to a “nonessential” activity, which has been discouraged during the pandemic. Relying on that obvious understanding, the government should work closely with universities, Japanese language schools and other parties to ensure that the country’s gate will not remain closed to all but a few. 

For example, acquisition of a visa for studying in Japan requires an application by the host institution and screening by the government. Such clerical work should not create a bottleneck, and the same can be said for accepting businesspeople and others.

The personnel involved in the process should be allocated appropriately. Simplified document requirements and other measures should be considered as the occasion demands.

For repatriating Japanese, accommodations have been made to smooth entry, such as modifying testing and quarantine requirements in accordance with the COVID-19 situation in the regions they were staying in.

There are no scientific grounds for having to maintain tight controls across the board just because they are non-Japanese.

We should check to see if we are not overburdening foreign nationals and appropriately review the requirements.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 14