‘Betrayed’: Japanophiles sour on muse as COVID isolation bites

Japan’s strict border controls have locked out foreign academics and challenged the country’s soft power push.

Some Japanophiles are souring on the country as strict border controls keep them locked out [FILE Kiichiro Sato/AP]

When Kaitlyn Ugoretz, a digital anthropologist specialising in Japanese religions, secured a prestigious fellowship with the Japan Foundation, it seemed like a dream come true. Ugoretz, a 27-year-old PhD candidate at the University of California, planned to arrive in Japan in August last year to conduct research for her dissertation before starting her fellowship with the foundation in March 2021.

But as a result of Japan’s border closures, the PhD student has been left adrift.

“I technically remain enrolled at my home university [the University of California], but I receive no guarantees of income, employment, health insurance, or tuition fee remission,” Ugoretz told Al Jazeera, describing the precarious financial situation she faced while waiting for funding from the foundation, which promotes cultural exchange between Japan and the world.

“Moreover, I am not eligible to live in graduate student housing. I have no stable income, so I couldn’t afford to pay rent while waiting to get into Japan. Hence, I’m living with my parents.”

After a period of depression and agonising over her future, Ugoretz decided to pull out of the fellowship.

“Suddenly I could see a clear future again,” she said, describing the feeling of a huge weight being lifted off her chest.

Japan Tokyo
Japan banned all non-resident foreigners last month in response to the Omicron variant [File: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters]

Ugoretz is among the many academics who have been unable to get into Japan during a period of pandemic isolation that has raised questions about Tokyo’s oft-stated commitment to cultural exchange and the durability of its renowned soft power.

Since Japan instated its first travel bans to combat the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020, helping it report fewer than 19,000 deaths, few foreign academics have been granted entry to the country. New visa issuances for all foreigners dropped 87 percent in 2020 alone, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), the steepest decline since records were made publicly available in 1999.

Japan, which last month closed the borders to all non-resident foreigners just weeks after easing entry for students and business travellers, is the sole G7 nation currently not granting visas to foreign academics, even as it continues to send its own scholars overseas.

The ban has also covered foreign student visa applicants, with just 7,078 students entering Japan in the first half of 2021, a drop of 90 percent from the same period in 2019.

In October, more than 650 academics from universities in Japan and abroad submitted a petition calling on the Japanese government to resume issuing student and research visas.

Although it is not clear if Tokyo heeded their calls, a brief window for visa applications reopened the following month, only to be shut weeks later following the discovery of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Michael Country, a scientist conducting cutting-edge research on how the retina gets energy, was scheduled to enter Japan in 2020 on a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) fellowship, before his entry deadline was pushed back several times with no chance of deferral.

“It always sounded like I’d be there in a couple months, so I never signed up for a 12-month [apartment] lease,” Country told Al Jazeera. “I’m having trouble planning long-term experiments because I may have to leave them at a moment’s notice. I can’t sleep due to stress.”

Country said his host institution, RIKEN, and his supervisor-to-be had done all they could to ensure he got to Japan.

“I wish I could tell the Japanese government, ‘Please, I’m not a tourist. I’m a scientist who wears a mask properly, stays isolated, follows Covid rules, and has had three vaccine doses. I just want to contribute to science, to the Japanese people, and to the world.’”

‘Japanophile downturn’

The ban stands in contrast to earlier policy frameworks aimed at fostering a more cosmopolitan environment at Japanese universities, including The Global 30 Project, The Top Global University Project and The 21st Century Centers of Excellence Program. Under the initiatives, the number of full-time international faculty at universities rose from 5,038 in 2000 to 8,609 in 2018.

The increase coincided with the expansion of Japan’s global soft power, represented in popular culture such as anime – an industry valued at a record $23.56bn in 2020 – and the government’s “Cool Japan” branding campaign.

The Japan Foundation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.

Roland Kelts, a professor at Waseda University and the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US, told Al Jazeera Japan’s isolation was putting its international appeal at risk.

“Covid, the forgettable Olympics, and the lack of epic new Japan properties augur a Japanophile downturn … Sadly, this is infecting academia, the arts, the business of translation and publishing,” Kelts said. “The harsh restrictions on students and academics are turning them elsewhere, to Korea, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia.”

Jason Douglass, a PhD Candidate at Yale writing a dissertation on the history of animation in Japan, is one of the few academics to have crossed the border since the pandemic began. But he shares Kelts’s concerns.

“Considering that we are now two years into a pandemic that will not suddenly subside overnight, it is alarming that there is no clear roadmap for foreign workers and students who have staked their careers on working or studying in Japan,” he told Al Jazeera. “The seeds of confusion and frustration sown by this most recent round of policy reversals and visa cancellations will bear bitter fruit for years to come.”

For Ugoretz, and potentially many other Japanophiles, there is a sense of betrayal that is likely to last.

“Now the prospect of teaching about Japan is much more complicated,” she said. “Do I encourage my students’ passion, or should I warn them to run away before their dreams get crushed?

“I was basically conditioned to be interested and invested in Japan, and I decided to dedicate my life’s work to it. But at my highest point of vulnerability, Japan basically betrayed me.”

Source: Al Jazeera