It has been a distressing year-and-a-half for Neha since she moved to Japan from India in January 2020. Her 6-year-old daughter and husband were supposed to follow her a couple of months later. But since then, she has been waiting desperately for them to join her.
“In the beginning I was really excited because I was coming to my dream country on a dream job,” says Neha, a 33-year-old IT engineer. “But then I cried every day. I felt alone most of the time. The separation from my family was longer than I predicted.”
India began its first nationwide lockdown in March of last year due to the spread of COVID-19. The measure not only restricted people from going overseas, but also suspended all road, air and rail transport. The lockdown was eased from May 2020, but by that time Japan had also introduced a blanket re-entry ban on foreigners, which was later relaxed to allow in long-term residents.
In September 2020, Japan lifted the re-entry ban on foreign nationals, but by the time Neha was able to get the necessary visa documentation from her company for her husband and daughter, a halt to new entry from around the world was imposed in December. An even stricter re-entry ban on arrivals from India was imposed in May 2021 due to the delta variant that originated in the country.
The Japanese Consulate in Mumbai was sympathetic toward Neha’s situation and did its best to attend to her repeated requests and pleas over several months. She also contacted Yogendra Puranik, aka Yogi, a city councilor of Indian descent in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward, hoping he could offer some advice to help with her situation.
In an interview, Yogi reflected on how the latest restrictions compare to the re-entry ban of 2020.
“This time there is a strict ban for anyone other than permanent residents, long-term visa holders, Japanese, and their spouses or children,” Yogi said. “Before, they were still accepting people with special circumstances, but now that has been made harder. They are accepting medical emergency situations in Japan, for which they will allow a family member to come from India. They are not considering re-entry for Japan residents who went to India to deal with any other kind of emergency situation, even if parents were sick or died.”
As a mother in Japan separated from her daughter in India, Neha is a rare case. She is also the primary breadwinner of the family, and in a reversal of the usual gender roles, her husband will be the so-called trailing spouse.
It took 18 months, but Neha’s husband and daughter were granted visas in June out of consideration for her daughter’s mental health, given the absence of her mother. At the time of writing, both were in quarantine in Japan eagerly waiting to re-unite.
“This whole experience has left a scar and I am still feeling so nervous and worried,” Neha says. “I will be at peace only after they are finally with me at home in Japan.”
Yogi says the majority of the cases he deals with involve spouses stranded in India who have been separated from their partners in Japan for over a year-and-a-half. In some instances, children also have not been able to meet one of their parents for a similar period, usually the father. There have even been cases of the immigration authorities not issuing new visas for newborn babies despite their parents being residents of Japan.
The forced separation has been painful for Neha. But as the ordeal dragged on, it gave her an abundance of time to think about how unnecessary it was, and where the blame lies.
“I felt angry all the time. I had stopped buying made-in-China products because of how I was feeling about the pandemic, but I got so angry at Japan after the re-entry ban lasting so long that I decided to buy ‘made in China’ instead of ‘made in Japan,’” she says, laughing through tears. “I know it’s silly and it is not a solution, but it was just a way to release my anger.”
Throughout the long wait, Neha wrestled with the question of why Japan had placed these restrictions only on foreigners. And she came to the conclusion that the Tokyo Olympics must be a factor.
“Japan desperately wants to go ahead with the Olympics. And there are rumors that to make it happen safely, they are banning foreign residents from entering Japan. If that is the real reason, then it’s a terrible thing to do. The Japanese citizens must also be suffering because of this ban, as there must be so much more work for them to do” in the absence of so much foreign labor, she says.
Fear of losing their jobs
Sharma, 30, who has been a Japan resident since 2017 and currently holds a 4-year engineer visa, traveled to India in April 2021 for medical reasons, and to mark the first anniversary of his father’s death.
Like Neha, Sharma asked that his full name not be published due to fears that doing so could harm his case.
His original plan was to get back to Japan on May 12, but his flights via Dubai were cancelled due to the COVID-19 situation in India. He booked the next available direct flight, which was to be May 29. But just a couple of days after he made the reservation, Japan announced its ban on arrivals from India.
Sharma informed his company about the situation. They at first told him that till he returns, he won’t be paid any salary, yet he would still have to pay his health insurance and pension premiums, totaling around ¥60,000 (US$540) a month. If he failed to do so, he was told he would have to resign from the company.
Sharma was desperate to keep his job and was hoping to go back to Japan. He sent emails to the Indian Embassy in Tokyo and the Japanese Embassy in Delhi, explaining the situation to them and asking to fly with special permission, but no one could help.
“I like Japan but it can be a very depressing at times,” Sharma says. “There haven’t been many jobs in India for the past 1½ years because of the pandemic situation. My company threatened to terminate my contract. As of now, I have been able to keep my job till the end of the contract, but asking me to pay the premiums is not justified.”
Amrita, a software engineer, has been in Japan for about 2½ years. Her situation is similar to Sharma’s, but her company has given her until August to return to Japan — or she loses her job. She asked to use a pseudonym as she struggles to keep her position with the company.
“I know some people who are stuck in India at the moment and are also working with Japanese companies, and their companies allowed them to work from India at a lower salary as long as the COVID situation continues. But my company is telling me that due to some Japanese labor law they cannot allow me to work from India,” she explains. “Also, I have my company laptop. I tried contacting the labor consultants and it seems like there isn’t any such law, but maybe my company policy is that they’re not willing to allow me.”
Amrita, like all the other interviewees, said she loves her life in Japan because of the safety and convenience it offers, but she’s nervous about her job situation and is contemplating what to do.
“At the moment I really need a job. But deep down I don’t want to continue this job even if they keep me, because I’ve lost trust in them,” she explains. “If this is how they are treating foreign employees, then even in the future, if I face similar problems, I know I won’t get any support from them.”
Tanmyi Mhasawade, a 33-year-old IT engineer, started a Facebook and WhatsApp group with another stranded Indian in 2020 to support and share information between Indian people based on their experiences.
“I was thinking that this group would end soon, but now I don’t know how long it will last,” she explains. “This time, even though people are stressed, people are talking more about practical decisions, like how they can cancel their rents, utility bills, or how can they work to get exemption from taxes or convince their companies to let them work from India, even at a much lower salary. In 2020 it was more panic and tears, but this time people are trying to think differently.”
But what has not changed is the confusing and unclear information on the Foreign Ministry’s website, she says.
“Sometimes the guidelines are so misleading. Like the other day, they updated that people coming from India must do 10 days’ quarantine, and people in the group thought that maybe this means that the re-entry ban has been lifted, and there was hope, but that was just a lack of clarity from the ministry. The rule was applicable only to the visa categories that were already allowed.”
The seemingly never-ending emotional roller-coaster of hope and despair is taking its toll on the community. According to Mhasawade, her group currently has around 1,200 members. More than 50% are waiting for move to Japan for the first time, while the rest are official residents of the country who are stuck in India due to the most recent re-entry ban.
“As for the visa categories of people in the groups, the majority are on dependent visas, and the rest are on humanities, highly skilled, professor, engineer, business manager, student visas and so on,” Mhasawade says. “Some people waiting for new entry are having a dilemma about whether to go to Japan or start looking for jobs in other countries. A few others have already left the group as they found jobs elsewhere.”
Most Indian residents of Japan currently stranded in India that I spoke to in the course of research for this article have serious concerns about the way immigration is handling the situation. They accuse the government of discriminating against foreign residents, by effectively forcing them to pay residence tax within Japan while they are not even allowed to enter the country. The most commonly shared sentiment was “It’s not as if the virus is going to check your passport and see the visa category.”
Yogi has been receiving a range of inquiries and messages from people who are stuck — not just Indians but also other foreign residents of Japan. He feels that it is not just the re-entry ban on foreigners that it is the problem, but also that the government is not doing enough for its own people — in terms of the delayed vaccination rollout, the level of PCR testing or their stubborn refusal to cancel the Olympics.
“There is a lack of fairness in the system and that is undeniable — between Japanese and non-Japanese. Immigration could have kept it logical: Get a PCR test done in India and then in Japan and do quarantine. This is not rocket science. Instead, they are just using the re-entry ban to show to their nation that they are doing something,” Yogi says.
“The games are the priority, and all the ban drama is mainly to show how well they are controlling the pandemic situation for the upcoming Olympics, and unfortunately the foreigners have become the victims in all this.”
Amongst G7 countries, Japan was the only one that discriminated against foreigners legally registered as residents of the country. And nations with more stringent bans have or had restricted both citizens and foreign residents indiscriminately.
.This month, Japan announced it was planning to issue vaccination passports so that people in Japan can easily travel from there to countries that have relaxed entry for those with such documents, but the government has said nothing about allowing foreigners to enter Japan with vaccination passports issued elsewhere.
We are all going through a tough time — some are losing their loved ones, while many others are losing their jobs and livelihoods. The lockdown has been hard on everyone’s mental health, and so has been the separation from loved ones.
Humankind is at a war with the virus, and this period will one day be written about in our history books. And for Japan, these stories of people separated from families, homes and jobs by a discriminatory re-entry ban on foreigners will be an indelible part of that history.
By Global Indian Ambassador – Megha Wadhwa