By KYRA KARATSU

A year of tumultuous change, 2021 has been marked by storms and sunshine. From lockdowns, to reopenings, to lockdowns again, the pace of the world has been expected to wax and wane with each new outbreak and variant.

Likewise, the closing, reopening, and closing of Japan’s borders have placed a damper on the country’s international queuing process.

Although Japan briefly began to accept foreign exchange students and business travelers in early November following months of closure, the spread of the Omicron variant quickly slashed the possibility of overseas travel. On Nov. 30, Japan once again suspended the new entry of foreign nationals and the issuing of visas – a measure that will not be revisited until Dec. 31. 

Consequently, international students, workers, and even families have been forced to, once again, play the waiting game. And, according to Regional Director of the WHO Regional Office for Africa Matshidiso Moeti, “Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”

As a student impacted by these fluctuations myself, it has been undoubtedly difficult to cope with living in a pandemic-induced limbo.

My call to study abroad in Japan first sounded in March of this year. After receiving an email from my college’s international department entailing an opportunity to participate in an exchange program in September 2021, I managed to complete the paperwork and interview process in a little more than a month’s time. By June, I had received my acceptance letter and by August, I began my search for flights to Japan. 

Truthfully, I had placed a fair amount of innocent, naive hope in my impending study abroad experience. Of course, come August, when Japan’s COVID-19 outbreak reached its height, the rose-tinted glasses slid away, and I was given two options by my host university: (1) to either participate in their online education program or (2) to defer my acceptance until Spring 2022. 

This was unfortunate, but bearable. After all, the pandemic presented more grave problems than just my scrapped exchange experience.

Not particularly interested in paying for an online study abroad program at the time, I chose to defer my participation to the following semester. However, in choosing the latter, I have to let opportunities and game plans slip through my fingertips. Until I know with absolute certitude that I cannot enter the country, a proclamation that I may not hear until March, many of my plans will remain on hold for a sizeable portion of 2022. The orchestrating of a relative’s wedding and my attendance at an upcoming family reunion, namely, have been all too reliant on my undetermined residency in the approaching new year.

Moreover, in contrast to the helpless stagnation that typified early 2021, the second half of the year has toyed with a prototype of normalcy. While the uncertainty of when, or rather if, this pandemic and its mandates will formally end still lingers, the growing access to vaccines and their boosters has since prompted a global rallying of activity – travel included.

For students such as myself, the early November commencement of Japan’s revived visa acceptance process seemed to align with this idea of reopening. In the spirit of resuming the quintessential study abroad experience (albeit with some new quarantine and anti-spread measures), charging forward with plane tickets and hotel bookings did not seem unreasonable at the time. Yet, within the very same month, the subsequent shuttering of Japan’s perimeters has once again made the country an unreachable milestone. Inevitably, while some students have clung to fleeting glimmers of hope, others have called it quits entirely in the name of being pragmatic.

It’s difficult to say what is the right choice for Japan to make right now. The threat of Omicron, with its daunting label as a “variant of concern,” should heed a response. National security is undeniably important, and ensuring that their relatively low number of cases stays low is a part of that agenda.

But while much of the world has adopted leniency amongst student, familial, and business affairs, the controversy over Japan’s lack of reciprocity has proliferated on online discussion forums like Reddit or Twitter. Hashtags such as #loveisnottourism and #japantravelban have created a space for dialogue and demands from foreign nationals who have sought entry into the country for much longer than I have. Similarly, online petitions that call for a reappraisal of Japan’s overly-discriminatory ban on foreigners or the reuniting of family members – some of whom have been separated for months or even years – have begun to circulate on the web.

Time and money are of the essence. Many can neither wait nor afford the costs of such delay. 

As the window of opportunity slams shut for visa applicants, attention is turning to the countries who are currently accepting foreigners on the condition that they quarantine after arrival. Among those on the list, South Korea and Singapore have become possible contenders for frustrated foreigners looking to relocate to East or Southeast Asia. 

Even my own patience has begun to wear thin. Although Japan stands foremost on my list for studying abroad, the practicality of considering a European-based program is something that I will increasingly need to contemplate, especially if the revision after Dec. 31 continues to be less-than-favorable for international students.

Still, for the applicants waiting for the day that Japan reopens its borders for educational, familial, and business purposes, it seems that those remaining have been left to ask the million-dollar question:

“How much longer?”

Kyra Karatsu is a second-year college student and writes from Santa Clarita. She can be contacted at karatsu.kyra@gmail.com.

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