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Japan's rigid COVID-19 border controls

hurt foreign students,

but also the country’s future

More and more international students are choosing to study in other countries, benefiting those destinations


International students are critical for Japan’s future.

Last decade, the government aimed to attract 300,000 of them per year to foster economic growth, heighten global competitiveness and infuse new energy into the country. Global educational exchange can result in highly educated workers. Even if international students return to their home countries, they become ambassadors by driving future business, tourism, opportunities, alliances and goodwill to Japan. Foreign students can help Japan enhance its image abroad and positively impact global university rankings.

Japanese firms often face hurdles in their global ambitions by the younger generations’ lack of a global mentality. International students can elevate Japanese students by sparking interest, fostering stronger foreign language skills, enhancing cross-cultural understanding and cultivating new perspectives.

International students seeking to study abroad can select from hundreds of destinations. With COVID-19, the situation has deteriorated for Japan. Even in good times, Japan struggles to attract overseas students and researchers due to language barriers, costs and other factors. Now, Japan’s closed borders over the past two years have created difficult obstacles and deflected students to other countries including South Korea.

Even among those students who are most committed, greater numbers of international students have started questioning Japan as a destination of choice. Other countries have kept their borders open to students during the pandemic while Japan has been increasingly seen as unwelcoming, slow, complicated and unstable. Some have even questioned Japan’s commitment to global education.

Prime Minister Kishida’s announcement on Feb. 17 to gradually reopen the borders to these students is welcome news. Unfortunately, the new measures fall significantly short of remedying the problem of nearly 150,000 students who are still waiting for entry into Japan. The slow re-opening of the country and limitation of only 7,000 travelers into Japan each day (both returning Japanese and new foreign citizens) is insufficient and must be increased further. Would-be students will also compete for these spots with business and government travelers, who will want to travel as soon as restrictions are relaxed. They will find it easier to get visas and can pay premium prices for their airfares.

Japan can have parallel priorities. While still prioritizing and preserving health and safety, the government can prioritize global educational exchange while reaping the benefits of inviting young overseas talent into the country.

A recent February opinion poll conducted by SAPIO Research, a British research firm, in conjunction with a researcher at Waseda University focused on a pool of 1,003 respondents from all age groups and all prefectures in Japan. The survey underscored the public’s willingness to embrace parallel priorities. So long as adequate protective measures are used, Japanese respondents would welcome students, researchers, business travelers and family members into the country.

Among the 1,003 Japanese citizens aged 18 and over, nearly 90% welcome the entry of new students and researchers into Japan. More specifically, nearly 77% of respondents supported the entry of new international students and researchers so long as the “new entrants are required to be vaccinated, take PCR tests before and upon arrival, quarantine and subscribe to a private insurance program.” An additional 11% support new entrants without any special precautions while 12% feel that new students and researchers should not be allowed into the country at this time.

This recent survey showed similar support for the entry of new foreign workers and trainees (77% support with adequate precautions, 8% support without any restrictions and 15% against any entry), new investors (79% support with precautions, 6% support without any restrictions and 15% against any entry) and foreign spouses and family members of Japanese citizens or foreign residents (77% support with precautions, 13% support without any restrictions and 10% against any entry).

As a global educational leader who first came to Japan at the age of 19, I am concerned about the negative impact that the closed borders have had on the country and its future. As the head of the Japan campus of a global top-350 American university and the destination of choice for students from Japan, the United States and nearly 60 other countries, I strongly encourage the government to keep the borders open and do everything possible to expedite entry of students and researchers into Japan.

As an American university, Temple plays a critical part in forging bonds that are essential to sustain the Japan-U.S. alliance upon which the country’s security rests. In late 2020, the Japan campus of my university was able to bring dozens of international students into the country. At the time, the government relied on TUJ to ensure student health and monitor their quarantine. No problems arose with this approach and the school does not anticipate any issues going forward.

Matthew Wilson is dean and president of Temple University, Japan.