Japan could ease its Covid-19 entry restrictions on its foreign residents - which have been described as isolationist and out of step with major economies - from next month, public broadcaster NHK said yesterday.
This comes amid strong backlash from domestic and international business lobby groups.
On the individual level, the restrictions have triggered an outcry over the economic and emotional distress to those who are affected.
Japan has an effective ban, with few exceptions, on the entry of foreign nationals from 146 regions.
This extends beyond leisure tourists and short-term business travellers, but also to permanent residents, students and other long-term visa holders, whose re-entry continues to be barred unless they had left Japan under special cases such as on compassionate grounds.
But NHK said yesterday, without citing sources, that re-entry will be permitted from next month for resident card holders, so long as they undergo mandated tests for Covid-19 and quarantine themselves for 14 days.
This policy now applies to Japanese citizens who are re-entering the country.
Still, Reuters cited a consular official at Japan's foreign ministry as saying that there has been "no decision yet" on the matter, which will affect some 2.6 million foreigners who have residence status in Japan.
The Japanese government - among whose ranks is Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who drew flak in June when he attributed the nation's low infection numbers to a different "cultural standard" than other countries - has insisted the policy was essential to curb the spread of Covid-19.
But Covid-19 cases and deaths are rising in Japan, where the daily tally stood at 1,034 cases and 15 deaths as at 9.30pm last night. Tokyo, with 258 cases, has not seen a two-digit infection toll since July 9.
This has not gone unnoticed, and the fact that a Japanese and a non-Japanese passport holder with the exact same travel itineraries are being accorded different treatment was slammed as "double standards" by the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
The European Business Council (EBC) in Japan also warned that the policy was out of step with other major economies and will not only hurt investment, but could also trigger investment disputes.
I feel that this travel restriction has cast a spotlight on how unfairly the Japanese government treats its tax-paying foreign residents.
MR LESTER KANG, a Singaporean who left Japan in June to attend to an urgent family matter. The co-founder of real estate start-up MetroResidences said his business has been hit by his absence. A closed Facebook support group he set up for others stranded like him has drawn nearly 3,000 members in a month.
EBC president Michael Mroczek cautioned that the policy may well cause businesses to "rethink their policy" towards Japan.
Japan Association of New Economy chairman Hiroshi Mikitani said on Monday that with the policy, Japan is bound to "sacrifice new business opportunities and access to knowledge and expertise".
Mr Mikitani, who is also chief executive of e-commerce company Rakuten, added that Japan is at risk of being seen as a society that does not welcome foreign nationals. This, he said, is "potentially damaging our appeal over the mid to long term and causing innovation itself to stagnate".
Those who find themselves unable to return include Mr Lester Kang, 38, a Singaporean who left Japan in June to attend to an urgent family matter.
The co-founder of real estate start-up MetroResidences told The Straits Times that his business has been hit by his absence, prompting him to set up a Facebook support group for others who may be stranded like him. The closed group has drawn nearly 3,000 members in a month.
"I feel that this travel restriction has cast a spotlight on how unfairly the Japanese government treats its tax-paying foreign residents," he said.
"I have a Chinese friend whose mother had to undergo a cancer operation, but could not travel to be with her loved one for fear that she will be unable to return to Japan, which has been her home for the past 10 years," he added.