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Visible Minorities: New Covid Foreign Resident Re-Entry Rules Still Racist

SNA (Tokyo) — Sometime during your life in Japan, you will probably feel a chilling attitude in Japan’s bureaucracy: as a foreign resident, you don’t really matter. To Japan’s policymakers, you’re at best an existence to be tolerated, at worst an unpredictable element that needs constant policing.

You’ll see it in things like Japan’s special foreign registry systems, or the “Gaijin Cards” that must be carried 24-7 and leave you vulnerable to random street ID checks by racist cops.

But you might not have realized until recently the most dehumanizing tenet of all: That foreigners should have no legal expectation to belong here.

Japan’s Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that Japan’s foreign residents have no “right of sojourn,” i.e., to leave Japan temporarily and expect to return. (Japan Times columnist Colin Jones called it a “reverse Hotel California”–you can leave any time you like, but can never check back in.)

That means that even if you invested your entire life in Japan, married a Japanese, had children, paid taxes, bought property, started a business, and even achieved Permanent Residency (which by definition should be a legitimate claim to reside here forever), nothing you did matters. You cross the border, you’re out.

Hypothetically, if push comes to shove, a Permanent Resident will have the same status as any foreign tourist at the border.

Well, that hypothetical came true last April when, due to Covid, Japan decided to bar all foreigners from re-entering Japan–even though Japanese could still return and merely quarantine. No other developed country does this, and there is no science indicating that Japanese passports offer enhanced epidemiological protection. It was purely arbitrary.

So foreign residents found themselves stranded overseas apart from their Japanese families, or watched helplessly from Japan as their overseas kith and kin died. This heartless and explicit racism attracted significant international attention, so from October 1, Japan announced it would open its borders to foreign residents under certain conditions.

But it turns out that, realistically, these conditions are still a ban.

Consider “George,” a foreign resident of Japan who told his experience returning to Japan from Europe this month.

As before, George’s Japanese spouse only had to appear at the border with a Japanese passport, take a Covid (PCR) test administered by the Japanese government, and then be let in for hospitalization or quarantine. But for George, the procedure had become Kafkaesque. Before departing Europe, he had to:

1) Apply at the nearest Japanese embassy or consulate for physical paper documents, i.e., “Certificate of Testing for Covid-19” and “Letter of Confirmation of Submitting Necessary Documentation for Re-Entry into Japan.” The certificate has to be applied for because, the embassy told him, the Japanese government wants the option to cancel the program at any time (thereby reinstating the blanket ban).

2) Physically report to the embassy to pick up the paperwork. He had to appear in person so the embassy could check his passport and residency status; never mind the potential distance between consular missions. If you want this, you’ll make the trip.

3) Get your PCR test in the foreign country, but do it to Japanese standards. Japanese bureaucrats are very pernickety about this–the doctor or laboratory carrying out the test must physically sign and stamp the actual paperwork issued by the Japanese embassy. Japan’s bureaucrats will not accept paperwork issued by the lab alone. They will also not accept PCR results that have been downloaded from the lab’s webpage, or sent by email, which is their usual way of reporting. This means you must, after receiving your negative results, go back to the lab and have them fill Japan’s forms out. George noted that in his part of Europe, this was particularly difficult. The regular healthcare systems don’t test asymptomatic people. People wanting to be tested nonetheless must pay a princely sum, plus find a lab that would fill out the Japanese paperwork afterwards. Most wouldn’t.

4) Depart for Japan within 72 hours of your PCR test. A negative PCR result starts a ticking clock. Not only must you lose time going back to the lab for signed paperwork, but also you have to buy a plane ticket within that window, at often double or triple the price of a plane ticket reserved in advance. George in fact bought his cheaper plane tickets weeks beforehand, hoping for a negative PCR result. If it had turned out to be positive, he would have lost his ticket. The PCR was, fortunately, negative, so the saga continues.

5) Head for Japan. At the boarding gate, airlines will have additional forms to fill out about your riskiness as a passenger, as will the Japanese government before you land. These documents are on the Honor System, so there is no clear way for them to verify if you’re actually infected.

6) Go through Japan Immigration. According to George, in addition to at least two rounds of document checking, Japan administers another PCR test on the spot. It all took some time, but he got through. Again, George’s spouse was exempt from all this, except for the PCR spot test.

7) Then go into quarantine for two weeks, but you are forbidden to use public transportation to get to your hotel. Figure out your own way there.

What’s the conclusion to draw here, aside from the embedded racism of treating only one of these people, traveling together under the same conditions, as the real contagion risk?

I argue that this system reflects the bullying nature of Japan’s bureaucracy, especially towards foreigners.

First, about Japan’s normalized bullying in general: I’ve found that in situations like schoolroom and corporate dynamics, or just regular dealings with people in power in Japan, people gleefully enjoy lording it over you, and the bullied just accept it as normal, waiting for their turn on the throne.

Consider the father-in-law who won’t consent to your marrying his daughter until you’ve sat on your legs begging for several hours, or until you meet outrageous conditions just to see how far you’re willing to go to prove your commitment. Consider the mother-in-law who tries to rewire everything about her new daughter-in-law’s household habits, lifestyle, and personality in order to “dye her into the family.” Consider Japan’s corporate culture with widespread hazing of new company entrants, assigning them unreasonable or humiliating tasks until they’re properly “broken in” and indoctrinated in “love-of-company spirit.” Consider how much begging and scraping sellers have to do in order to get companies or consumers to buy from you. Customers are king in Japan because they’ll bully you (especially in online reviews) if you don’t lower your head and just take it.

And that’s before we get to the insider-outsider and junior-senior relationships one sees in Japanese secondary education, and all-consuming “club activities” that drive droves of children to mental illness and suicide. Japanese schools are essentially bully factories.

Here’s where Japan’s bureaucrats come in: “Bureaucrats are bastards” is an axiom worldwide, but Japanese bureaucrats are particularly smug in how they see bullying as a perk of their position. And people do defer to them, or else. No wonder why polls say “bureaucrat” is the most sought-after occupation in Japan.

That said, there is some degree of check and balance. When bullies go too far, social opprobrium is cast. People bully back, speaking up to bring forth public shame.

But there’s the problem: Who speaks up for foreigners in Japan? They are so disenfranchised that they have practically no voice in Japanese society. That means Japan’s bullies have free rein over them.

There’s a long history of this. Minorities in Hokkaido, Okinawa, and Japan’s former colonies offer generations of testimony of how nasty Japan’s bureaucrats made things for them: Either they assimilated and subsumed their individual or cultural identities (sometimes even their lives) for Japan, or they had their livelihoods forcibly taken away from them by bureaucratic or military fiat. The onus was on the outsiders to “prove” their fealty to a state indifferent to their fate.

This imbalance of power is especially prevalent in Japan’s bureaucracy entrusted with “managing” (read: policing) foreigners. Consider the Immigration Services Agency’s indifference to your fate.

Do you ever get reminded that your visa is about to expire (unlike regular reminders sent out to Japanese regrading renewal dates for important documents)? Do you find that bureaucrats seem to be go out of their way to make documentation as arduous and complicated as possible, disqualifying your applications for even minor transgressions? In my case, one time was because I didn’t write an Arabic number “4” with a wide enough gap between the top two strokes. Do you find that bureaucrats look for some excuse–any excuse–to deny you Permanent Residency, reduce your visa from three years to one, or just cancel your visa altogether?

If yes, then congratulations–you’ve been “broken in” to Japanese bureaucratic attitudes towards foreigners, and how you can never really measure up to native standards. Even after you’ve jumped through all of their hoops, it doesn’t matter. As seen from last April, you’re on par with a tourist when Covid comes calling.

In sum, Japan’s October revised re-entry system is still a means to discriminate against foreigners. By arbitrarily creating a tight 72-hour hour window requiring special paperwork unattuned to the realities of Covid testing overseas (especially when the test is meaningless if you get infected on the plane), Japan’s bureaucrats merely deflected international criticism from its regular racism by replacing it with new, improved racism.

It also, as usual, puts the onus on foreigners to prove, like any bullying parent-in-law gleefully making things difficult for you, how committed they are to Japan. Split foreigners apart from their Japanese families? Force them to pay several times the price for a test and a plane ticket? Make them realize their hard-earned status in Japan is revocable at any time?

Their attitude in a nutshell: “Yeah, okay, your paperwork is in order, gaijin-san. I guess we’ll let you back in, but see that as a favor. We’re actually busy right now trying to figure out how to open things back up for foreign factory workers, tourists, and visitors for the Tokyo Olympics by next year, so don’t expect special treatment, no matter what you’ve ever done for us as a resident and a taxpayer.”

With a status this tenuous, is it really worth trying to make a go of it in Japan anymore? Covid has made that choice much clearer.

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