International students are speaking out against strict entry policies for foreigners imposed by Japan to control COVID-19 transmission and have started a campaign to lobby for entry permits for around 2,000 students unable to take up their places at Japanese universities this year.
Students said Japan’s border policies make it very difficult to come to Japan to pursue their studies despite being accepted at Japanese universities, causing financial loss and mental anguish.
At an online press conference aired in Japan this week, two Italian students stuck in their country despite being accepted to Japanese universities for this academic year said via video link that Japan’s border controls were discriminatory. They argued such strict regulations are unfair as Japan prepares to permit international athletes to enter for the Olympic Games slated for this July.
Giulia Luzzo, from the University of Turin in Italy, who is pursuing a masters degree in Japanese literature, said Japan is treating foreign students as “invisible”.
Luzzo said she lost her Italian scholarship last year awarded under the European Union’s ErasmusPlus scheme to support her studies in Japan. “The loss is immeasurable both financially and career wise,” she said, adding that she is taking online Japanese language classes at Saitama University, Tokyo, and is working several part-time jobs that will pay for her studies while she waits in limbo.
“The stress is terrible given the uncertainty in my life. I have not slept properly for months as I juggle work and the time differences between Japan and Italy to take online classes,” she said, adding that some international students had changed their plans and gone to more ‘open’ Asian countries such as South Korea.
However, China continues to bar foreign students, as does Australia.
Campaign for entry permits
Filippo Pedretti, a student at Italy’s University of Padua, is still waiting to come to Japan for a masters in religious studies. He said on 26 May that he had started a campaign to lobby entry permits for foreign students and is joined by more than 2,000 students around the world facing similar entry restrictions.
“Foreign students are willing to follow quarantine measures and other safety steps such as continuous PCR tests to stop the spread of COVID-19. We do not want to delay precious time as we work towards our careers,” said Pedretti.
A spokesperson for Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology acknowledged the current situation was “not easy” for international students, given the global pandemic.
“The ministry is aware of the difficulties that have hit aspiring foreign students and have taken new measures to ease the issues,” the spokesperson said, preferring his name not be used. Last year, the ministry increased financial support for universities to improve distance learning and also to encourage flexible measures such as easing limits on credits that can be taken via distance learning, he said.
But with Japan now in its fourth wave of higher coronavirus infections and under an extended emergency state placed on big cities, the government has not unveiled a clear policy on easing entry bans for foreigners or made special provisions for international students.
Under a plan to ease entry last year, Japan’s foreign ministry said Japan would prioritise “business travellers and international talent Japan is in need of” before easing restrictions for foreign students and eventually for tourists, but set out no timetable.
Sharp decline in foreign student arrivals
Official uncertainty has led to a sharp decrease in foreign student arrivals in Japan since January this year. Waseda University, a prestigious private institution, reported the number of international students was 3,610 in November 2020 – a decrease of around 2,000 compared to the previous year. Students’ inability to enter Japan was the main reason for the decline, the university said.
At Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) at Beppu, Kyushu, foreign students make up 50% of its student body. The university said more than 500 accepted students are currently stranded in their home countries and are studying online. Only 200 students arrived in Japan during the last few months during short periods when Japan opened up to foreigners.
“There is a lot of angst and worry among students both foreign and Japanese, given the COVID-19 restrictions,” explained Kaori Matsui, manager of APU’s student office.
Surveys conducted last year indicated that loneliness, depression, and financial loss are major problems facing many students as universities shut down physical classes to meet social isolation policies. Foreign students are also the most affected by the decrease in part-time jobs as restaurants and companies closed down.
“Our foreign students, who are mostly from Asian countries, are anxious because they cannot go home or come to Japan. They are also the first to lose part-time jobs because of Japanese language difficulties,” she explained.
In a bid to protect its reputation as a leader in Japan for globalised higher education, APU had launched diverse programmes to support international students. New measures included 150 new scholarships this year to help financially-strapped students to pay tuition fees and living expenses. APU also made loans available at zero interest.
Classes follow a hybrid system between online and physical attendance aimed to help students gather and discuss between themselves.
Blow to higher education internationalisation
Experts view Japan’s COVID-19 related policy that has hit foreign students awaiting entry or following arrival in Japan, as a long-term blow to the national goal to boost internationalisation of higher education.
“Students in doctoral and masters courses in top national universities can manage, given their government scholarships. But the larger numbers enrolled in private universities have to struggle with the economic down-turn, a blow to increasing international students in Japan,” said Takashi Moriya, manager at the National Federation of University Cooperative Associations.
The federation comprises 200 universities and some foreign student committees that help each other. “The only way to cope is to take individual steps to support international students, which is not the best response. The government’s priority is Japanese students,” he explained.