TOKYO -- Japanese entry restrictions meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus create a barrier for international students, threatening to undermine participation in exchange programs by Japan's universities, school officials say.
The University of Tokyo sent 49 students abroad under exchange agreements in the fall 2021 semester, but took in none from overseas. Flows in both directions plunged compared with fall 2019 -- before the COVID-19 pandemic began -- when they were 124 and 146, respectively.
Many universities revived exchange programs in 2021. Japan eased its long-running ban on new entries by foreign nationals Nov. 8, only to reimpose it at the end of the month in response to the spread of the omicron variant of the virus. Just 228 foreigners were able to enter Japan in this brief window. Only three of them were international students.
"This is not the way student exchange programs are supposed to work," said a coordinator at the University of Tokyo.
Universities waive tuition for exchange students. International rules for these exchanges are intended to balance the number of students going in both directions.
At Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University, another of Japan's elite schools, about 90 students studied abroad in the fall. None in effect came in the other direction, though the school offered online classes to international students.
Japan's prolonged entry restrictions have prompted overseas universities to stop sending students to the country.
The University of California, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Minnesota in the U.S., along with Canada's McGill University and the Australian National University, are among those to give notice as of December that they will not send students in the spring 2022 semester, according to Japanese schools including the University of Tokyo, Hitotsubashi and Waseda University.
The long-term impact of fewer international students coming to Japan could limit Japanese companies' options for hiring global talent.
Of the roughly 107,000 Japanese students who studied abroad in fiscal 2019, about 66,000 did so under exchange agreements or other arrangements, according to the Japan Student Services Organization.
If Japan continues to provide fewer opportunities for international students, its own learners may face repercussions.
"Universities in English-speaking countries are particularly sensitive about imbalances in the number of exchange students," said Hiroshi Ota, a Hitotsubashi professor with a research focus on higher education. "They are being patient for now, but we might see them cancel acceptance of Japanese students as early as the fall 2022 semester."
Japan was the only member of the Group of Seven advanced economies as of Jan. 7 to block entry to exchange students from the rest of the world, according to the Foreign Ministry. Though some voices in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government favor reopening the door with a quarantine period, others remain wary as omicron infections rise.
"We can't say just let in exchange students under these circumstances," said an exchange program official at the Ministry of Education.