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International students at universities around the world have steadily increased and have been more critical to institutions’ missions in recent years. At Boston University, the percent of international students increased from 6% in 2000 to 23% in 2014. At the University of Tokyo in Japan, the percentage increased from 5% in 1993 to 15% in 2019. The importance and great presence of international students at institutions in the United States was reflected in the reactions to the controversial visa rule enforced in 2020 under the Trump administration that virtually prevented international students from obtaining a student visa. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, home to more than 10,000 international students, sued the administration over the policy.

As it has been almost two years since COVID-19 was first identified, the measures taken by governments against the virus are changing, particularly in regard to immigration restrictions. On November 8th, the U.S. lifted its travel ban against all foreign citizens with proof of vaccination. For people with valid visas, the U.S. has kept its border open throughout (with some exceptions). Although a temporary travel ban against eight Southern African countries (lifted on December 31st) and other strict policies had to be enforced again with the Omicron variant confirmed in November, the U.S. has been quite progressive with its quarantine policies, allowing people with essential purposes including education to cross the border. Besides the United States, six out of seven countries in the Group of Seven (G7) have made an exception to allow foreign students to enter their countries by utilizing available tools like proof of vaccination and negative test results.

Japan, on the other hand, has enforced strict immigration restrictions for foreign citizens and is the only nation in the G7 that currently does not let foreign students without the status of residence cross the border. Some government-sponsored international students are exempted from the policy, but privately financed students occupying roughly 95% of the overall international population in Japan have not been able to travel at all. In response to the significant decrease in COVID cases in Japan, the Japanese government eased restrictions for foreign citizens on November 8th, but was forced to implement it again due to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

On December 1st, Teruo Fujii, the president of the University of Tokyo, issued a letter to international students. In the letter, Fujii stated that he believes the new government immigration policy against the Omicron variant is “temporary,” promising to keep notifying students with any updates. In fact, about 1,000 international students are waiting to enter the nation and start their studies at the University of Tokyo, and the impacts of the absence of international students at institutions in Japan has already been observed. Some students have changed their destinations, and if Japan continues to be exclusive for international students, it will eventually lose its international recognition and credibility in academics, particularly research.

In an interview with Asahi Shimbun, Kaori Hayashi, executive vice president of the University of Tokyo, highlights that the loss of international students is not only a problem for international students but also an ordeal of the educational environment for Japanese students. According to Hayashi, “By bringing people together with different ideas and backgrounds, various creative projects can begin. The campus becomes extremely vibrant and active,” calling on the government to create concrete guidelines to protect Japan’s education and research activities.

The question now arises: Why has Japan been very cautious about opening up its border for foreign citizens?

There is a general tendency that Asian countries have been very careful with lifting restrictions. For instance, a lot of the Western countries have softened or even eliminated restrictions, putting an enormous emphasis and trust on proof of vaccination and negative COVID test results. However, Asian nations including Japan still require people with such precautions to be isolated for as long as two weeks. Another reason might be that it is relatively easy for Japan, as an island nation, to strictly monitor immigration and enforce border control measures.

While such cautious immigration measures are one of the most simple yet crucial ways to prevent the outbreak of any kind of contagious viruses, continuous enforcement of such policies generally hurts business and many other fields that potentially contribute to the nation’s economic growth; education is no exception. The Japanese government ought to actively find a balance between short-term infection control and long-term national interests.

In-person teaching for and educational collaboration with international students are important and not easily replaceable, but alternatives such as online communication platforms and other effective services have emerged and proved to be able to serve as a reliable tool. Instead of sticking with the traditional learning manner and conventional thinking that everything has to be in person, we need to shift our focus to creative alternatives and recognize the benefits of them like cost reduction. In order for Japan to stay as an “attractive nation” for international students, Japan needs to accept the changes and establish a structure that can prevent education disruption in the long run.

Tomoki Matsuno, originally from Japan, is an undergraduate student at Harvard University, studying government with a particular focus on East Asian politics. He was a Youth Representative at the 2019 Y20 Summit (Official Engagement Group of G20 Summit) where he worked with international organizations and created policy recommendations on Future of Work, Business and Environment, and International Trade. In 2021, Tomoki was selected as a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum (WEF). He is also serving as a Regional Coordinator at the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS).