Cassie Lord, a freelance writer based in Tsukuba, Japan, planned to spend Christmas in her native UK. She has not been home for nearly three years and was hoping to spend time with a family member who recently had heart surgery.
Now her plans are in disarray after Tokyo reinstated strict border controls in response to the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
“When Japan stopped allowing visitors and students, I began to worry,” Lord said. “I don’t know if [the government] is going to suddenly revoke the changes, or suddenly make them worse … I don’t want to get stuck in the UK.”
Since the World Health Organization named Omicron a “variant of concern”, nations across the globe have invoked strict entry protocols. But true to recent form, Japan’s are among the most sweeping and severe.
Since Monday, all non-resident foreigners have been banned, reversing an easing of restrictions for business travellers and foreign students weeks after it was introduced.
Authorities also briefly banned all inbound flight bookings before doing a U-turn on Thursday amid concerns it would prevent Japanese nationals from returning home. Mandatory quarantine has been extended to 14 days for returning residents, irrespective of vaccination status.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida described the restrictions as “temporary, exceptional measures that we are taking for safety’s sake until there is clearer information about the Omicron variant.”
The tough response has been praised by some pundits as Kishida’s most decisive move since taking office, offering the new leader a potential boost among a voter base not entirely convinced of his ability to lead.
But others see Japan retreating into “Sakoku” thinking – mirroring the country’s policy of isolation between the 17th and 19th centuries. As other G7 nations rolled back restrictions throughout 2021 amid rising vaccination rates, Japan kept tight control of its borders despite suffering fewer than 19,000 COVID-19 deaths and vaccinating more than 75 percent of its total population.
Border controls during early waves of the virus drew criticism for singling out foreigners, while several cases arose of officials attributing – either directly or indirectly – the spread of infections to non-natives.
The Itako Health Center in Ibaraki Prefecture gained notoriety among foreign residents earlier this year when it sent out a document urging the community to be aware there were “many patients infected with COVID that likely caught it from foreigners”.
Last year, Taro Aso, a former prime minister, made headlines when he applauded the Japanese people’s “mindo”, or cultural values, for overcoming the first wave of the virus.
Japan’s border controls have been a source of anxiety for foreign residents and businesses throughout the pandemic.
“The most obvious effect [of the controls] is that foreign and domestic companies alike will not be able to bring in essential personnel,” Michael Mroczek, the head of the European Business Council of Japan, told Al Jazeera.
“This means that positions might not be filled or that top management will have to manage the company from outside of Japan.”
Davide Rossi, co-founder of education company Go! Go! Nihon, told Al Jazeera the mental toll had been especially severe for international students hoping to study in Japan.
“I continuously receive messages from students that have lost two years of their lives due to the continuous ban,” Rossi said. “They’re not able to recover their tuition fee or time lost, and are often heavily depressed and without funds to study elsewhere.”
The WHO has called for “rational” measures to tackle the new variant, which some scientists fear could be more transmissible or evade vaccines more easily than other strains, but criticised blanket travel bans.
Asked about Japan’s latest ban at a news conference on Wednesday, Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said he found it “hard to understand” from a scientific standpoint.
“Does the virus read your passport?” Ryan said. “Does the virus know your nationality or where you are legally resident?”
Stephen Nagy, a visiting fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs think-tank, told Al Jazeera he believed the restrictions were “prudent” until there was more information about the variant.
But he conceded that Tokyo’s hesitancy towards reopening had been exacerbated by its relative lack of exposure to the virus.
“With COVID rates so low at this stage, it seems politically impossible to not take an ultra-conservative approach to border control for fear of spreading the new variant,” he said.
For people like Tania Sofia, a Portuguese national living in the UK who is hoping to get into Japan with her Japanese fiancé, uncertainty is the one constant.
The current rules state that only those with re-entry permits can travel to Japan, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website is “not clear about visas”, she told Al Jazeera.
“[Once married] my goal is to get a special circumstance short-term visa at the Japanese embassy in London, so I can return to Japan with him in January,” Sofia said. “But with this new ban, I don’t know if it will affect visa applications… Of course, we don’t want to spend any more time apart; we want to start our life together.”