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Post Entering Japan in the COVID Era: Edward Mears Reports
Created by John Eipper on 07/22/20 4:02 PM

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Entering Japan in the COVID Era: Edward Mears Reports (John Eipper, USA, 07/22/20 4:02 pm)

Edward Mears writes:

Building off the recent posts about WAISers' personal experiences with coronavirus tests and other inconveniences during this pandemic, I thought I would contribute a recent story of my own regarding my long and uncertain fight to break through Japan's strict entry ban (in force due to COVID-19) and move back from Singapore to my residence in Tokyo. This "up close and personal" experience with the Japanese bureaucracy provided me with a front-row view of the messy "art" of immigration policy during COVID-19.

Background: Japan's Immigration Policies During COVID-19

Like most of the world, Japan was quick to close its borders at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following an initial ban that targeted visitors from certain specific regions which had been hard hit by the outbreak (China, Italy, South Korea, etc.), Abe's government announced a larger ban on visitors from 76 countries on 1 April. In principle, this ban denied entry to anyone landing in Japan who had visited any of these 76 countries in the fourteen-day period prior to travel (this was further expanded to 129 countries). Notably exempt from this ban were Japanese nationals and so-called Special Permanent Residents (this special class of Permanent Resident refers to those ethnic Koreans (zainichi kankokujin) whose families had decided not to repatriate to either Korea following the end of World War II and instead remained in Japan but never assumed Japanese citizenship, leaving them in a legal "grey" zone as to their residency status in the country which was solved by the creation of this special status). Japanese nationals and these Special Permanent Residents remained free to leave Japan and return to the country even after the implementation of this re-entry ban on 3 April.

This policy meant that the vast majority of Japan's foreign population (including "regular" Permanent Residents who had made their primary homes and livelihoods in Japan for years and even decades) would not be permitted to re-enter Japan if they left the country after 3 April, while those already abroad would be unable to return. At first glance this may make sense, as international travel should be discouraged during the middle of an outbreak. Problems with this policy began to arise, however, as foreigners living in Japan found themselves unable to visit sick / dying family members abroad or attend to other emergencies unless willing to stay outside of Japan for an indefinite period. Other foreign residents who had been trapped outside of Japan prior to 3 April found themselves separated from their families and unable to return but still owing rent, tax and other financial obligations in Japan. All the while Japanese nationals were free to travel abroad (to countries that would permit them or where they had residency status) and return to Japan without issue. Notably, Japan was the only G7 country to impose such a strict re-entry ban which effectively banned all foreigners from entering Japan, regardless of residency status. Even the nativist administration in the United States was permitting green card holders to leave and return.

The foreign press in Japan as well as advocacy groups such as the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan ("ACCJ") were quick to publicly warn about the impacts this policy would have on foreign residents and to foreign talent (which Japan is desperately trying to attract), with some journalists drawing parallels to policies from Japan's isolationist past. Under the sakoku (closed country) policy of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan was cut off from the rest of the world for a ~200 year period lasting until Commodore Perry brought his black ships into Tokyo Bay and forced the country to open up to the West in 1853. Based on my careful reading of articles about the re-entry ban, it does not appear that this policy was the result of a new "shogunate" looking to restrict all foreigners (including legal residents) from entering the country and to separate families, but rather in the frantic, early days of the pandemic the plight of foreign residents was unfortunately overlooked as the policy was crafted and the unintended consequences were not realized until it was too late. In a country where reputation and face-saving are of utmost importance, this unfortunately meant that the policy would not be quickly reversed, and as of the date of this writing the re-entry ban is still in effect (with a few minor changes).

Japan Times on ACCJ's call to relax the re-entry ban:

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/07/17/business/accj-travel-ban-non-japanese/

Asahi Shinbun calls the re-entry ban "discriminatory": http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/13565050

Japan Times highlights foreign firms questioning long term bans in Japan: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2020/07/17/issues/re-entry-ban-businesses-talent/

Navigating Japan's Re-entry Ban

While all of this was unfolding, I was in Singapore wrapping up my one-year secondment to the Lion City. Originally scheduled to return to Japan on 1 July, COVID-19 and the strict Japanese re-entry ban threw my return plans into disarray. Although I had retained my residency status in Japan and held a working visa that was valid for 3 more years, the re-entry ban prohibited me from entering the country. With work winding down and an apartment lease in Singapore that was set to terminate on my original departure date, I found myself in the very uncomfortable position of not knowing when I would be able to return to my home in Japan and uncertain about whether I would be able to stay in Singapore while I waited for an opportunity to return. In addition to these logistical problems, I was also especially anxious to return to Japan in order to continue treatment for a long-term medical condition that was diagnosed in Japan just prior to leaving for Singapore.

After enduring heavy criticism about the re-entry ban in foreign press and from trade groups, Japan's immigration authority finally clarified in mid-June that they would permit certain foreign residents to return on humanitarian grounds. These humanitarian grounds were vague in description and appeared limited to true "emergency" circumstances--such as the death or serious illness of a family member abroad, a need to obtain medical treatment, or where a foreigner had been separated from a Japanese spouse. Although this was still a very narrow window, there was a glimmer of hope and I got to work to see how I could re-enter the country. Not knowing where to start, I first reached out to the Japanese embassy in Singapore to clarify the "humanitarian conditions" and see if the circumstances of my medical treatment would permit my return to Japan. Although the embassy was very responsive and helpful, they explained that this matter was entirely out of their jurisdiction (Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs only handles the issuance of visas and could not address issues related to re-entry for foreigners with residency status), and would have to be addressed by Japan's immigration authority.

Japan's Immigration authority is known as one of the more difficult bureaucracies to navigate in Japan (especially amongst the foreign community), and adheres to many outdated practices that have no place in the 21st century, such as an ubiquitous use of fax machines and postcards for appointment making. I therefore knew I had to come well armed for any discussion with immigration officials and set to work building my case based on my need to continue medical treatment in Japan. I was able to secure an appointment with my Japanese doctor for a date after my proposed return to Japan and was also able to have him write a brief letter describing my medical condition and the forthcoming appointment. The letter was fairly simple, only two or three lines of Japanese text, on the official letterhead of the hospital. I had to arrange for an acquaintance in Japan to pick up this letter (which involved issuing a power of attorney to this person), and this original letter was then overnighted to me in Singapore. In addition to this letter, I prepared reams of medical records that I had on file to help prove my case if needed. While preparing for this, I had numerous calls with immigration to determine my chances for admission (to my surprise, it was fairly easy to get through to them on the phone). During these discussions, the immigration officials were unwilling to give prior approval or otherwise speak to my specific circumstances, but after reading them the text of the letter from my doctor and explaining my circumstances in general terms, the officers explained that in principle my case "appeared" to be acceptable grounds for re-entry. They noted, however, that the decision on my re-entry is ultimately at the discretion of the immigration case officer who handles my admission at the airport in Japan.

I therefore had no choice but to actually get on a plane and attempt to enter Japan without knowing if I would be let through. After discussing with some close friends in Japan who had a better read on Japan's immigration procedures than I did, I decided to take this chance to try and get back to Japan, even if my entry was uncertain.

Flying Internationally During COVID-19

Departure: I flew All Nippon Airways ("ANA") from Singapore to Tokyo. I had to confirm with the airline beforehand whether they would permit me to board as I did not fall under the classes of passengers that would generally be permitted entry to Japan (i.e., Japanese nationals and Special Permanent Residents). Although I did my best to explain my circumstances, the gate agents were extremely hesitant to let me board because they had not heard of the recently announced humanitarian exceptions to Japan's re-entry ban. After a tense call with immigration in Tokyo, they finally confirmed that I would be able to board the flight. By this point I had already surrendered my apartment and all of my belongings were with me at the airport--I am not sure what I would have done had they not permitted me to board. However, there was one condition to my permission to board since I was not a national of the country I was departing from (Singapore). In the event Japanese immigration did not let me through, I would have to be deported back to the United States (rather than Singapore, since I was no longer a resident there and non-residents were not permitted to enter Singapore) and ANA would be responsible for the cost of flying me to the United States. Not wanting to assume this risk, ANA had me sign a waiver and indemnification agreement obligating me to assume the cost of the flight (and other related costs) back to the United States if that became necessary.

Flight: The flight was more or less routine, except for some added safety precautions, including temperature checks and a mandate to wear a mask on the flight. The boarding procedure was somewhat different than usual (window seats in the rear of the airplane window were boarded first, followed by middle row, aisle, then front of plane in the same order). I gather there were approximately 30 passengers on my flight, the vast majority appeared to be Americans who were connecting at Tokyo's Narita airport for flights home to the United States. There was a new in-flight video about the coronavirus measures in place on the aircraft, and the flight attendants all wore masks, gloves and goggles (but no PPE or face shields). There was plenty of room for everyone to spread out, and the closest passenger was 3 rows behind me. There was no in-flight duty free, however they did have a meal service (which I skipped). Upon landing, those passengers connecting to international flights were asked to deplane first. After these connecting passengers deplaned, the remainder of us entering Japan were asked to gather in the business class cabin (about 10 of us in total) before permitting us to deplane.

Arrival / Quarantine / PCR Test: Upon arrival into the airport, the group of us entering Japan were first taken to an interview with quarantine officials from Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare ("MHLW") before undergoing the COVID-19 PCR test. MHLW required me to complete questionnaires about my health and travel history, and sign a declaration that I would observe the terms of a 14-day quarantine, which was to be observed at an authorized hotel or at private residence (I opted for private residence). The MHLW official explained that we would be permitted to leave the airport (pending approval by immigration) before receiving our PCR test results but would be forbidden from leaving our quarantine location for necessities until the PCR test results were available. The PCR test was quick and only slightly uncomfortable (it consisted of a nasal swab to the back of the throat), and I was told I would receive my results in 3-5 days. After completing this phase, we were then ushered along to Japanese immigration, where my case for re-entry would ultimately be decided.

Clearing Japan Immigration

Most of those among us who were entering Japan were Japanese. I believe I was the only solo foreigner attempting entry. The others in the foreigner lines were Japanese with children or spouses of Japanese nationals on foreign passports. I was asked several times by airport staff if I was SOFA personnel ( the "status of forces agreement" between Japan and the US military) before they let me through to the standard immigration gates for foreigners. After the immigration officer at these gates went through my passport and checked my residency status, I was motioned into a side room for further examination. I went into this small waiting room (plastered with posters about refugees / asylum seeking / human trafficking) where I was met by another immigration officer who would take a closer look at my documentation and determine whether I could enter Japan. The officer took the letter from my doctor and passport and had me sign a document acknowledging the adjudication process that I would go through to determine if I could enter the country. I waited (for what seemed like an eternity) as this immigration officer determined my fate. I could hear him discussing my case with his superiors on the phone (the room was small), which raised my heartbeat and made me acutely aware that I was the only one in that room for whom phone calls were being made, shaking my confidence that I would be let through. After 20 awful minutes of waiting, the officer returned and without much fanfare handed back my passport and motioned me through an immigration gate on the other side of the waiting room to go and collect my baggage--I had made it through! I frantically flipped through my passport just to be sure and found the entry stamp, as well as a special red stamp below it which I had never seen before, indicating that I had entered Japan following a special adjudication under the Japan's Immigration Control Act.

After clearing customs, I was free to go home and begin my quarantine. I received my PCR results (negative) after two days, which were notified to me by email. Several days after that I received an email notice from my ward office where my residence is located informing me that the ward was aware I had just returned and implored me to continue to observe the terms of my quarantine for the full 14 days. Tomorrow is my last day of quarantine, after which I will be able to return to work and move about the city. While I am extremely relieved to have made it through Japan and grateful to those who helped me through this process (including my Dad), this process has made me very aware of my status as a second-class citizen in Japan and the fragility of my ability to stay here, which can be restricted suddenly and without notice based on geopolitical concerns and other factors completely out of my control.

JE comments:  All's well that ends well, Eddie, and you came out of the ordeal with an excellent story.  You persevered, built your case with a lawyer's rigor, and succeeded.  It is interesting that Japan, arguably the world's most technologically advanced country, should have such antiquated bureaucracy.  Ultimately your fate was determined by mountains of paper and one guy on the phone.

Most of us have been traveling very little of late.  Let's escape and reminisce with other stories of airport immigration past.  Who's next?


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  • In Northern Europe, Travel is Nearly Back to Normal (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 07/23/20 3:57 AM)
    I have been through closed borders several times since the anti-Coronavirus travel restrictions started. These restrictions have been very hard for me, as my business requires me to be in several countries on a regular, rotating basis, something which was impossible for a while.

    Edward Mears (July 22nd) complains about Japanese bureaucracy, but other than the postcards and fax machines, everything in his story sounds fairly typical, and certainly aligns with my experiences talking my way through Danish, Estonian, and Finnish borders while those were closed. A residence permit was normally grounds to return through closed borders to a European country, but some countries required it to be a permanent residence permit, not a "temporary" one; that is, for a year or three. I did manage to get through closed borders every time, based on vague exceptions to the rules, with regard to which only the officer in the arrival airport could make a decision, so no pre-approval. Fortunately I was nowhere required to quarantine.


    Now, in Northern Europe, the borders are fully open almost everywhere, and traveling (and life) is more or less back to normal. Which means I'm on a plane once every 2-3 days. Until the middle of July, all of these countries required arriving passengers to go through passport control lines as if they were coming from outside the Schengen zone, but even that now has been cancelled, so you fly as normally other than masks.


    JE comments:  Cameron, nice to hear from you.  Have you returned to Moscow in the last few months?  We'd love an update.


    Next, a report from Tim Ashby in Mallorca.


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  • In Coronavirus Times, Staying Busy in Mallorca (Timothy Ashby, -Spain 07/23/20 4:12 AM)
    We have now been in Mallorca since 15 March and even when it's "safe" to return to the UK, we will make our permanent home on this beautiful island, where the climate is salubrious, the people warm and welcoming, and the cost of living dramatically lower than in the UK.

    Also, aside from mandatory wearing of masks in public places, life has returned to "near-normal"--restaurants and hotels reopened, business activity generally recovering, and zero Covid-19 deaths for well over a month. The few recent cases were found in a tourist family from the mainland and a hotel worker from France. So we're all cautiously hopeful that there won't be a "second wave."


    I had to dissolve my medical travel tech startup, GloblMed, because the business model was based on inexpensive international travel and access to competitive medical facilities worldwide. Those two crucial components have disappeared for the foreseeable future, and may never return.


    I am happily focused on writing my biography Elizabethan Secret Agent: The Life and Times of William Ashby, Her Majesty´s Ambassador to Scotland. I am now on the "downward slope" and expect to finish the first draft by the end of September. I give daily thanks that we are living in the digital age, as most of my research sources (e.g. English State Papers and the "Simancas" Spanish archives) are fully available online. Otherwise, reference books that have not been digitised can usually be ordered from Abe Books or Amazon, and delivered to my door in Mallorca. For those of us who wrote PhD dissertations in the pre-digital age (all of my research was "paper"-based, and I typed around 20 drafts on an IBM Selectric) we can be especially appreciative.


    After the William Ashby biography is published, I plan to write the first in a series of action-adventure novels featuring a "black Sharpe" set on the island of Grenada in the 1790s. I lived on Grenada for a number of years, did extensive archaeological work followed by research in the archives in London, and published several scholarly articles on the military history of Grenada, including "Fedon's Rebellion," Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol. 62 no. 251, 1984. The novel would be set during the 1795-96 Fedon's Rebellion, and the hero/protagonist will be a mixed-race NCO in the Loyal Black Rangers, an actual unit of freed slaves who fought on the British side against the French-supported insurgents.


    John asked for our ideas on WAIS postings. When time permits, I will send my analysis of the BLM/ANTIFA and the "Cancel Culture" movements in the USA and elsewhere. I have been surprised that there has been so little commentary on WAIS about this important subject. Over the past few months I have had unbiased reports from contacts in various intelligence agencies and police forces which have always been reliable. These have contributed to forming my personal analysis.


    As a political and ideological agnostic, I believe in discerning as much of "the Truth" as possible, and will share this with fellow WAISers, although I suspect that many will disagree with my conclusions.


    Envia cordial salutació des de Mallorca!


    JE comments:  Everyone knows what a fan I am of Tim Ashby's historical fiction.  I'm sure your new hero will be as richly drawn and compelling as FBI agent Seth Armitage has been (Devil's Den, In Shadowland).  Tim, any chance Seth will return for a third episode?


    In the meantime, best of luck putting the final touches on the William Ashby book.  A unrelated curiosity for this language guy:  How is your spoken Mallorcan coming along?  Or do your rely primarily on Castilian?


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  • A Close Call with Fate: "Diamond Princess" (Edward Jajko, USA 07/24/20 4:21 AM)
    Edward Mears noted that, having arrived back in Japan and being quizzed by immigration officials, he was asked if he was "SOFA personnel," i.e., US military or other personnel presumably entitled to enter the country. Wisely, he said no. This reminded me of my one and only visit to Japan, in July or August, 1967.

    I had flown in on Pan Am Flight 2, starting in Vienna. I had gotten out of the plane in Beirut and Hong Kong, visiting the transit lounges, and had set foot in India, leaving the plane, which seemed to have been parked off in the wilds, to visit a souvenir shack just off the pavement. Otherwise, I witnessed several changes of crew and had the same chicken dinner several times. We arrived at the old airport of Tokyo late at night.


    At immigration, the officer at first assumed I was a military person. Although laden with the travel bags the airlines used to give away, I was young, 26 or 27, and fit and trim (yes!). At Japanese immigration control, I at first couldn't understand why the official was asking if I was military; then I realized that he probably thought I was entering Japan from Vietnam. I momentarily thought, what an easy way to get in; then I realized I would have to produce proper ID cards, etc. All of these thoughts came in a flash before I said "no" and wound up in the regular immigration line.


    In our house we regret but at the same time are grateful for a trip to Japan that never came about. My wife Pam has wanted to travel to Japan for years. When she was still working, she was going to go for meetings at her employer's large installation in Yokohama. She was looking forward to that trip and was planning to take extra vacation time to spend an extended period in Kyoto. She was working with a travel specialist, was doing a lot of studying, etc. I was planning on accompanying her on that trip. At the last minute, her boss cancelled it.


    My wife's dream of visiting Japan persisted, especially of spending considerable time in and around Kyoto. Finally, last year, she proposed a trip to one of her younger sisters, a now-widowed semi-retired physician, who did a round of her medical training in Japan many years ago--a sisters' trip. This husband would remain home.


    They, and in particular my wife, did extensive planning, working with a travel agent, devising itineraries, choosing airlines, etc. And buying travel insurance. An important part of the planning was watching numerous programs on NHK, the Japanese public TV channel that we get on our ATT UVerse cable television. I was watching the sumo highlights program just last night.


    The trip was to take them from San Francisco to Narita, then briefly to Tokyo, then to Kyoto for about two weeks.


    Then my wife and sister-in-law were to take a cruise around the islands of Japan, stopping at various ports, ending in Tokyo Bay.


    We are sorry that this trip never happened, that Pam and Terry never flew into Japan, and in particular that they never went on that cruise. But we are grateful that this all did not happen. They were to travel last March, when the pandemic was just beginning to show itself. And the ship that they were to take that cruise on was the Diamond Princess.


    JE comments:  Ed, Pam and Terry have a "near-brush with disaster" story for the history books!  Did they cancel the trip because of the nascent coronavirus pandemic?  Had they traveled, they would have experienced more than their share of the same chicken dinner--a month's worth or more.


    A curiosity:  Did Carnival charge the passengers for their extended quarantine on the Diamond Princess?  I presume not, although many tourists stuck in different corners of the globe are now dealing with massive food and lodging bills.  Just yesterday I read of a New York couple who returned home after a five-day trip to Turks and Caicos turned into a five-month lockdown:


    https://www.msn.com/en-us/travel/tripideas/a-couple-is-finally-going-home-after-their-5-day-caribbean-vacation-turned-into-a-5-month-coronavirus-lockdown/ar-BB174jyg


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