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No entry – unless you are an athlete

Japan has imposed one of the strictest travel bans worldwide since the start of the pandemic, but while scientists and students are stranded abroad, thousands of athletes and Olympic personnel will enter the country.

While thousands of Olympic athletes plan to visit, Japan’s Covid-19 entry ban leaves researchers and students behind. Twenty players and ten staff members of the Australian women’s softball team arrived in Japan on June 1 in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, which open on July 23.

The team is one of the first to enter Japan, with thousands of Olympic participants and approximately 80,000 associates expected to arrive in the days and weeks ahead of the event.

The same day the Australian team arrived, local media reported that the Japanese government plans to further tighten access restrictions, which are already among the strictest in the world.

The border enforcement measures taken by Japan to contain the spread of Covid-19 have left thousands of non-Japanese abroad stranded in constant uncertainty about when they will be able to return.

Among them are many researchers and students, and people who have lived in the country for years. Japan first introduced a travel ban in March 2020.

The ban also applies to foreigners with permanent resident status in Japan and long-term visa holders working in the country, including their spouses and families.

That ban was briefly lifted in late October before new Covid-19 variants prompted the government to reintroduce its border restrictions in early January.

The strict entry ban stands in stark contrast to the tens of thousands of people allowed to enter Japan as part of the Olympics. Critics ask why people with legitimate reasons to participate, such as research, study, or long-term work, are still kept out while athletes are admitted to a short-term event.

Apart from the negative impact this has had on lives, it is also starting to affect research institutions and universities in Japan.

“It has been 14 or 15 months since no one has been able to leave Japan and come back. For some people who are very established in Japan and have family and children here, that’s probably okay, but for some who come here in the short to medium term…” Piero Carninci says before stopping.

Carninci is deputy director of the Riken Center for Integrative Medical Sciences in Yokohama and head of the Genomics Research Centre, Functional Genomics Program at the Human Technopole research institute in Milan.

“People who come here for a post-doctoral research position for two or three years are suddenly faced with the decision to leave the country to see their families or to stay here until who knows when,” he adds.

However, the entry ban does not only affect foreign researchers who are already in the country, but also future new employees and students from abroad. Carninci says his lab only hired five new people this year, all of whom came from Japan.

“We were used to this exchange: getting fresh brains […] We tried to recruit for many different positions. In the end we hired people who were already in Japan.” Riken is one of Japan’s largest scientific research institutes, conducting studies across the entire range of natural sciences, including biology, neuroscience, quantum physics, and computer science.

The Designated National Research and Development Institute was founded in 1917 and employs about 3,000 scientists, about 20 percent of whom are non-Japanese. This makes Riken far above the average in Japan in terms of internationalization.

According to the institute’s website, the two largest groups of foreign researchers come from China and South Korea. At the same time, there are many from the US, India and Europe. Most of Riken’s annual budget of nearly 100 billion yen (about £640 million) in 2019 came from the government.

About a decade ago, and partly as a result of rapid population decline, Japan set itself a goal to internationalize its research institutions and universities, a target of 30 percent that was later lowered to 20 percent.

Most Japanese research institutes and universities are still a long way from that goal, with Riken being the exception. The government has also set a goal to increase the number of foreign students in Japan to 300,000 by 2020 and to rank 10 Japanese universities among the top 100 universities in the world by 2023, according to local media reports.

Here at Riken Integrative Medical Sciences Center and especially in the genomics medicine division that I lead, we’re pretty international, we’ve internationalized our labs and centers over the years,” says Carninci, adding that sometimes up to 60 percent of the research staff came from abroad.

“We have worked very hard to make our institute more international, and this year everything has been reversed,” he says, adding that he has no official figures on how many foreign researchers are in the whole country.

hired since the start of the pandemic and the beginning of Japan’s entry restrictions.” I can talk about five positions in my group, and I can tell you that of the 14 or 15 PIs [principal investigators] I work with, no one this year is anyone from abroad, which is highly unusual.

” Carninci says the restrictions have caused months of delays in filling posts, which o in turn, the research projects slowed down. His research group tried for months to fill one position, but eventually realized that it would not be able to get a visa for foreign applicants.

“Eventually we changed the title of the position and got some [domestic] temps,” he says. It took them more than half a year to fill the position, and in the end hiring someone through an agency was also quite expensive, he says.

He estimates that it took an average of three months longer to fill a vacancy, while at the same time suffering the disadvantage of a smaller pool of candidates to choose from.

The lack of international recruits also affects the gender diversity at the institute, he notes. “Of course, in international recruitment we also have more female scientists on average, because there are not so many female students in Japan who go to graduate school and get into this very competitive arena,” he adds.

Japan’s strict entry restrictions come on top of an already difficult situation for international students and researchers.

The graduation of one of Carninci’s PhD students was delayed by nearly five months because she was unable to conduct the research necessary to publish her graduate thesis while the lab was closed between April and July last year.

“She was going to do a PhD and do a postdoc in the US. But that was gone because the lab couldn’t wait there,” he says.

A preliminary report published in March by Jacques Wels, a sociologist and researcher at the Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, and an associate professor at the University of Cambridge at the time, aimed to assess the impact of Japan’s travel bans on the health of migrants. to judge. quality of life, well-being and financial health.

In the survey, many of the 425 respondents said the slowdown and uncertain future had negatively impacted their financial situation and mental health. About 88 percent of respondents rated the Japanese government’s official communication about the travel ban as poor or very poor.

About 54 percent said their biggest concern was uncertainty about their professional future. Two students, Giulia Luzzo and Filippo Pedretti, who they say represent hundreds of researchers and students currently stranded abroad, held a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo in late May.

“The entry ban has had dramatic consequences for thousands of foreign students and workers who have had their lives suspended for more than a year, especially as universities have had to cancel several scholarships and up to three semesters of exchange programs,” said Pedrettie, a student at Italian University of Padua, who is still waiting.

always to enter Japan for a masters degree. Although Japanese universities have accepted them, Japanese embassies are refusing to issue visas to foreign students, he added.

“Such measures were understandable last year, of course, but today seem outdated compared to other countries […] that started accepting foreign students long ago, with the necessary security measures.

Japan is virtually the only country that still maintains such strict border controls,” he said, adding that only China and Australia have equally strict immigration policies. “We know that the Olympics are controversial at the moment, with many people arguing that they should be canceled or postponed.

However, as foreign students, we don’t give an official opinion on whether we think they should be held or not. is just a matter of concern to us that athletes and Olympic Games related people enjoy special exemptions such as permission to enter the country when we are not,” he said at the press conference.

Pedretti said the students did not expect to be allowed in any time soon, but hope that the Japanese government would at least provide some sort of schedule for when it plans to ease restrictions.

“We are amazed at Japan’s detailed plans for the Olympics, often saying that canceling is not an option. On the contrary, no words are said about when we are supposed to finally go to Japan,” he said.

“Exchange programs need months of preparation and universities are already canceling their exchange programs for next year because the government doesn’t give them a schedule.

” Luzzo and Pedretti represent a group called ‘Students, workers, spouses stranded outside Japan’ who recently sent an open letter signed by dozens of students and researchers to an EU delegation in Japan and other diplomatic representatives from European countries.

The letter urged EU countries to make further efforts to get Japan to relax current access restrictions. Signatories also briefly explained their situation. “I should have moved in August 2020 to work as a researcher at Riken; nine months later I’m still in Italy waiting,” one wrote.Another said:

“I was offered a postdoctoral position on a government funded project (AI related). I finished my PhD earlier than intended, resigned from the company I worked for and prepared the necessary documentation, which arrived late (January) because I couldn’t get a visa.

” “I would like the EU to make it clear to Japan that opening borders to students and workers is not only ethical, but also benefits their research and economy in the long run,” wrote another.

The group also met with European Union ambassador to Japan, Patricia Flor, who said that while Japan is naturally interested in attracting researchers and students from abroad, the government’s current priority is to fight the pandemic. .

“Those who used to live in Japan, or want to come here, not for tourism, but have a serious purpose […] for them, it should be possible to come,” she said in a meeting, according to a summary provided by the group.

“I’ve often used this argument by saying to the Japanese, ‘You’re hurting yourself, you’re saying you have a declining demographic and a declining population, you’re having trouble sustaining your service industry, your employment, your research;

you need innovative creative [people],” she said. “How many of those who are now being sent back will turn their backs on Japan, finally really come to Japan and not reconsider [coming]?” The strict entry ban is affecting the research community and students, but also companies in the country in general.

A survey of 383 German companies, conducted by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan in June 2020, found that about 80 percent of companies said that the access restrictions are a significant burden An equal percentage said it also threatens their revenues and profits.

More than a third said they expect a loss of revenue solely because of the restrictions. “The concerns raised in the survey indicate that the travel ban is not only a burden for German companies in Japan, but also for Japanese business.

The two economies are so closely linked that the opportunity to bring experts from Germany in switching is essential to support Japanese business partners in their production.

With the enforced travel ban, Japanese customers who rely on German machines for smooth production are increasingly at risk,” the German business group wrote in a press release.

In August 2020, the US, Australian, New Zealand and British Chambers of Commerce, along with the European Business Council, in a letter expressing concern about the impact of Japanese immigration authorities’ restrictions on entry for non-Japanese nationals.

“We remain disappointed and confused by the restrictions on the return of Japan’s long-term residents […] This policy runs counter to the treatment Japan is receiving from other G7 and other leading countries that treat long-term foreign residents equally as citizens on health issues ‘, they said.

“We know of no evidence to suggest that foreign long-term residents of Japan entering from abroad pose a greater health risk at the local level than Japanese nationals doing the same.” Many foreign long-term residents of Japan feel abandoned by the government.

“The travel restrictions imposed by the Japanese government in various forms since 2020 have made me rethink the idea of ​​settling permanently in Japan,” said Giovanni Pascarella, a research scientist working at the Riken Yokohama Institute who traveled to Japan in September 2010.moved.

Of course, after 10 years of investing in this country, Japan was on my list of places to settle down for good. Then Covid-19 hit, and with it came the first travel ban targeting all foreigners, with no exception for foreign residents.

the cruel separation of couples and families, the meaningless interruption of lives and, worst of all, with little to no scientific basis.

” Pascarella concludes, “Each day of that travel ban made it more and more difficult to justify efforts to succeed and integrate in a country that had proved capable of unhesitatingly cutting the thread of foreign residents for political convenience.”