There is a young Syrian woman in Gaziantep, Turkey, who for months has been staying up all night to attend virtual university courses and to study Japanese at International Christian University (ICU).
A recipient of a scholarship for Syrian refugees called the Syrian Scholars Initiative, she matriculated at ICU in April, but is banned from traveling to Japan because of COVID-19 restrictions. Thousands of international students, many of whom are vaccinated, are in the same situation. Meanwhile, a few days ago it was reported that VIPs will be allowed into Japan to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. This is a regrettable double standard. The Japanese government should immediately start processing new international student visas.
Having spent a large part of my youth in Japan, my affection for Japan and for the Japanese people runs deep. Since 2015, I have had the privilege of serving as the Executive Director of the Japan ICU Foundation, a nonprofit organization in New York City that is committed to working with ICU to nurture global citizens.
We launched the Syrian Scholars Initiative in 2017, not only to provide much needed educational opportunities to refugee students, but to also increase diversity on campus and offer a chance for the community to learn from them as well.
In addition, our other scholarships and short-term programs aim to provide international educational experience to students. International education is invaluable in broadening perspectives and nurturing global citizens who can comfortably traverse cultural and national boundaries to work towards the common good.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I was living in Tokyo with my family and in the middle of my one-year assignment at ICU. During the early stages of the pandemic, when so little was understood about the virus, it was reasonable to ban international travel based on the assumption that it would slow the spread of the virus.
However, now that testing protocols have been established and vaccination rates are rising in countries around the world, including Japan, travel restrictions must be loosened. It is time to start allowing students with valid certificates of eligibility to apply for and receive visas to enter Japan. The border can be opened while ensuring public safety by requiring that international students be fully vaccinated before entering Japan.
Continuing with the travel ban will only damage Japan’s global reputation and competitiveness in higher education. The longer the ban goes on, the less likely talented students will want to travel there to study and the progress it has made in internationalizing its universities will be quickly reversed.
Already, dozens of international degree-seeking students who were planning to attend ICU have withdrawn due to the travel ban. The same dynamics are playing out at universities across Japan. According to a report by University World News, at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, 500 accepted students remain stranded in their home countries unable to travel to Japan, and Waseda University’s international student numbers were down by approximately 2,000 in the fall of 2020.
In March, the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) released its 2020 survey of international students in Japan — and the data is dire. There was an overall decrease of 10.4% in the number of international students in Japan. This comes after several years of growth.
Given the continued travel ban, the number of international students can be expected to fall even further in 2021. This should be a major concern for the government, which for years has strived to make Japanese universities more globally connected and competitive.
International students bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to Japan, furthering diversity on and off campus. They also develop a lifelong love and appreciation for Japanese culture, with many helping to bridge Japan with their home countries in meaningful and powerful ways.
International students that have studied in Japan have the potential to be transformative figures in their homelands as well. For example, the International University of Japan graduate, U Kyaw Moe Tun (MBA class of 2004), gave a courageous speech on Feb. 26, renouncing the coup d’etat in Myanmar at the U.N. General Assembly in his capacity as the ambassador to the U.N. from Myanmar.
Other examples include former ICU student John D. Rockefeller IV, who became a U.S. senator and West Virginia governor and who remains a close friend of Japan and Kyoto University Ph.D. graduate X. Jie Yang, who is now a professor at the University of Calgary. Professor Yang became the recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette in April 2016 in recognition of his contributions to Japanese language education and promotion of Japan-related studies, enabling further mutual understanding between Japan and Canada.
Aside from the benefits of prominent individuals that have studied in Japan, international students bring with them intangible benefits for Japanese students and society as a whole. For instance, without an opportunity to develop friendships with international students, Japanese young people will become even more inward looking.
This is a serious problem in a world that is ever more connected, and in which confronting our biggest challenges, such as climate change, will require increased cooperation across borders.
According to research conducted by the Cabinet Office, Japanese youth are less self-confident, less equipped with intercultural competencies and less interested in international experiences than peer groups in other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. This data is even more dispiriting given the large amount of money the Japanese government has invested in globalization efforts through programs like the Top (Super) Global University project, the Global 30 Project and the JSPS-Global Centers of Excellence Program.
Japan is not unique among its neighbors in placing travel restrictions on international visitors during the global pandemic. China has been closed to international visitors since the beginning of the pandemic.
On March 15, China started to allow a limited number of international visitors to enter China. However, student visas are not yet being processed. Singapore is only processing student visas for applicants from a limited number of low-risk countries.
The outlier is South Korea, which has allowed in international visitors from certain countries throughout the pandemic. Although the quarantine and monitoring requirements are strict, South Korea has remained open to international students.
With the Olympic Games, Japan will once again be on the world stage. As young people around the world tune in to watch, Japan has an opportunity to announce that it is once again welcoming international students with open arms.