The Japanese government’s decision to ease restrictions on the entry of international students, as part of lifting controls on foreign entry to Japan, has raised hopes among universities. They have been struggling to cope with the loss of international students due to COVID-19 prevention border control measures.
Yet enthusiasm remains muted because of strict conditions imposed on universities accepting foreign students, with universities saying the number of foreign students who can return to campus – many of them for the first time in more than a year – will be severely limited.
While Japan has cut down quarantine to three days for foreigners vaccinated with Moderna, Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines, enrolled students and technical trainees are expected to self-quarantine for 14 days.
In addition, the decision to open borders is based on regulations that permit only 3,500 entrants daily – including Japanese nationals. Media reports, however, indicate that as pressure mounts from foreigners, the government is considering expanding that number to 5,000.
Nikkei newspaper reports that almost 141,000 foreign students with residence permits have not entered Japan out of a total of 190,000. The Immigration Services Agency of Japan stated that only 7,078 students entered Japan in the first half of 2021, a drop of 90% from the pre-pandemic period in the first half of 2019.
The government is also processing students according to when their Certificates of Eligibility to allow them to apply for a visa were issued – usually on gaining admission to a Japanese university. So international students who received residence permits between January 2020 and March 2020 will be allowed to apply in November for entry.
Shigeru Omi, chair of the government’s advisory panel on COVID-19 response, said: “The new scale is aimed at capping infections to avoid overwhelming the medical system. It is also designed to get social, economic and educational activities back on track.”
Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University
Kaoru Natsuda, dean of admissions at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), told University World News that the number of foreign students able to be received on campus is currently based on a quota system shared among universities. Some 36 students enrolled in 2020 at APU have applied to return in November.
He said the tough entry conditions are a blow to the university, which is well known for its international campus. “International students are calling us up and waiting eagerly to return. But they will have to wait longer,” he said. Foreigners comprise half of the 5,555 students at the university.
For example, under its allocated quota Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University estimates that only 30 to 40 students will arrive in Japan this year, among the 200 applications to be filed by its accepted students. The expected number is also miniscule compared to the total of 843 students locked out and continuing to take online tuition since last year.
Given the government’s latest decision, APU has launched an expanded programme to support returning students, following official demands that allow entry based on universities following government guidelines that expect them to monitor students after their arrival.
The measures include picking up international students at the airport and supporting them during their 14-day quarantine in Tokyo hotels. The students, who are not allowed to use public transport, will also be taken to the university, which is located on Kyushu Island.
To meet the new government decision and guidelines, APU says it has beefed up support for international students by launching an expanded programme to support their return.
“APU is well known for its international campus. Accepting foreign students again is imperative to our teaching,” explained Natsuda. Japan is the only country in the Group of Seven that has banned the entry of most new foreign students since the pandemic began last year.
Students wait, others give up hope
Minna Lim, a student from Thailand, told the university this week that the news was welcome after studying online during the pandemic. But she also explained that the need to juggle her upcoming tests with getting the many documents for her visa ready, had made her nervous.
Lim added that she remains committed to joining the campus because she has already made friends online.
An unofficial Twitter survey based on 1,800 foreign students shut out of Japan reporting their Certificates of Eligibility dates, put fewer than 8% able to enter in November, 7% in December and 26% in January. However, the vast majority of the students – over 58% in the self-reporting survey held on 5 November – would not be able to enter until after January 2022.
Some students say they have opted to study in South Korea because of the entry restrictions. Others say that, given the backlog of visa applications, they do not expect to receive visas any time soon. “If I can’t enter by January 2022, I’m switching to Korea,” tweeted a student stuck outside Japan who has been waiting eight months.
“I wanted to study in Japan but had no idea when I would be able to enter the country. I just could not waste precious time,” Joana Gubau (22) told the Yumiuri newspaper in September. Gubau has been studying in South Korea since June this year.
Professor Sachihiko Kondo, head of the Japan Association for International Student Education, an organisation comprised of universities and higher education organisations, issued an urgent appeal in early September urging the government to enable students to return.
“Japan is losing its credibility among international students as a study destination, which will impact [on] the country’s ability to attract talented individuals,” she told the Japanese press last month.
In May 2021, new government-sponsored students were allowed to enter the country, but restrictions continued on privately funded students who account for 95% of the total number.
The number of foreign students in Japan in May 2020 fell to 10.4% of the numbers from a year earlier, to slightly less than 280,000, linked to the pandemic.