Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Can “Isoationist” Japan accept diversity?
IWAMA Yoko / Professor at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies

January 7, 2022
Why is there such a strong isolationist mentality in Japan? In the Edo era, “checking guns coming in and women going out” (1) was said to be the tight control function of the checkpoints established by the Shogunate or the feudal clans to guard their respective territories. Today, it is “checking viruses coming in”, as if closing doors as tightly as a clam to bar entry of foreign elements would make people feel at ease. I was aghast to see a substantial portion of the people welcome or accept as a matter of course the Japanese government’s sudden closure of the border when the Omicron variant of the coronavirus started spreading. I could not help wonder why the Japanese were so enamored of the policy of isolation reminiscent of the Edo era.

In the Edo era, during which time Japan closed itself off from the rest of the world (called “Sakoku”), domestic commerce flourished with abundant flow of goods, the standard of education was high, and so was civil consciousness. But behind it all was the society that was suffocatingly closed. Last summer I took a family trip to the historic site of Fukushima Checkpoint, which would be the equivalent of today’s immigration control office. The document required then, called “tegata”, with its drawn portrait of the carrier, would be today’s passport. Travelers would have to have their documents examined in minute detail, be subjected to tough questioning and endure harassments before being allowed to pass the checkpoint.

Women travelling alone were considered to be especially suspicious. At the Fukushima Checkpoint, there was an exhibit called the “How to conduct interrogation of women”, indicating that it took about two whole hours for the process to be completed. That was about how long it took me to go through the procedures at Narita Airport to reenter Japan upon my return after a 5-day trip to Europe. Not that I was considered especially suspect because I am a woman, but I felt as if everything that was coming in from abroad was being treated as if it were a germ.

The problem is that as long as COVID-19 appears to be under control, the Japanese public are more or less at peace with these measures. Whether in the Netherlands, Germany or France, even a slight tightening of the corona-virus related restriction would give rise to riotous protests and a mountain of litigations. A sizable portion of the people would go berserk shouting “How dare you trample on my personal liberty?” It is true that such reactions would hamper the progress of vaccination and do harm to society. At the same time, there are things to be lost from being too subservient as is the case with the Japanese public.

I had to transfer flights a number of times in Europe during my trip. Passing through airports in several European countries meant going through a variety of controls, some requiring only vaccination certificates and some requiring PCR certificates. None of the countries had as stringent a control as Japan. In each of the countries I passed through, the passport control officer would demand to see the necessary document, glance through it, and let me go. PCR certificates were also accepted if they were readable in English.

However, once I arrived in Japan, I was pushed around for solid two hours going through document checks, hearings, having apps installed on my cell phone, submitting pledging documents, having my saliva taken for testing, and so forth. I was so annoyed that I felt a little empathy with those who dared break through checkpoints in the olden days. The regulations had been revised so many times that I could hardly tell which category I fell into. As it happened, my home was within the distance that a special limousine would take me from the airport. It meant that I was to self-isolate myself at home for 14 days. Otherwise, I would have been isolated in a hotel.

It cost quite a bit as well. ¥33,000 for the PCR test prior to departure. ¥10,000 for the PCR test when boarding a plane in the country I was visiting. (The test in Japan is so expensive!) ¥20,000 for the limousine service for the airport to my home, specially arranged because of the ban on using public transport. There was a system whereby if I underwent a PCR test within ten days after my arrival, my isolation period could be shortened. I looked further into it and discovered that this test would cost another ¥ 22,000 if the result was to be obtained within the day of the testing. If you stayed in a hotel, the hotel fare would add to the cost. I muttered to myself the old hackneyed phrase, “this is a blatant non-tariff barrier!”

Balance is essential in everything. I am not arguing that people should travel into and out of countries freely even if there is a life-threatening danger. I personally was opposed to the holding of the Tokyo Olympic Games in the summer. At the same time, the reality is that we live in this world. As such, we need to have the sense, at least to some extent, that we share risks as well as the fate with the people on this planet. Just not getting sick does not provide all the answers. The economy, the nation, and other entities can survive, function and grow only if their life can be sustained by blood or its equivalent circulating through their systems. What is happening now is tantamount to preventing the blood from circulating.

The policy to deny entry even to Japanese nationals was immediately criticized for being draconian, and was withdrawn overnight. But there are still family members of Japanese nationals who apparently cannot enter Japan because they do not have Japanese nationality. Article 7 of The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union recognizes the right to respect for one’s private as well as family life as a fundamental human right. If the aforementioned restrictions were placed on EU citizens, they would immediately be a subject of litigations.

From a medium-term perspective, the number of foreign residents in Japan is bound to increase. This means that we should develop the sense to consider the right to respect for family life as an issue of human rights.

There is also the issue of foreign students. For the past two years, with only a handful of exceptions, foreign students have not been able to enter Japan. We should be concerned about how great a loss this means to the future of Japan. For those foreign students who plan to stay in Japan for longer periods, the risk of their spreading the viral infection in Japan can be minimized by clearly setting their quarantine periods. At the least, there is no scientifically rational ground for treating them differently from those Japanese nationals who return from trips abroad. The “Plan for 300,000 Exchange Students”, aimed to reach the goal by 2020 and played up with such fanfare, has come to this sorry state when faced with obstacles. These students are already good friends of Japan when they make up their mind to come to Japan to study. Whether they stay in Japan for long periods or go home when they finish their studies, there is no doubt that they play a significant role that meets Japan’s national interest in the broad sense. Why is it that Japan keeps turning its back on these students so stubbornly?

Before COVID-19, there were several direct flights per day between the major cities of Europe and of Japan. Today, there are only a few flights per week, and the planes are sparsely boarded. This poses a dire challenge to the airlines and the tourism industry. No recovery is in sight yet for the revival of inbound tourism, either. Japanese youths, unless they are super-reckless, will hardly venture abroad. Business-related exchanges have all but ceased. The negative synergy of all these could be that, in about 5 years’ time, Japan would be feeble and unsteady on its feet.

Nation-building begins with human resources development. In the early post-WWII years, it is true that exchanges with overseas were sharply limited. However, among the people who rebuilt Japan in these years, there were many who had experienced the world outside Japan during the wartime and in the period before the war. “Repatriation” in a variety of senses formed the core of their experiences as they faced the challenges back home. Venturing spirit and curiosity were a part of their mentality. Bearing their experiences in mind, why don’t we start with opening up our mind?

(1) The Shogunate was highly vigilant of possible mutinies by the daimyos (feudal lords) of various clans and imposed tight control on guns being smuggled into Edo and the wives, daughters, etc. of the daimyos, living in virtual captivity in Edo, going incognito out of Edo.

Yoko Iwama is Professor at National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies ( International Politics.) This is an abridged version of the article that appeared in the Political Premium section of the Mainichi Shimbun on December 20, 2021.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

「鎖国」メンタリティーが強い日本 異質さを受け入れられるか
岩間 陽子 / 政策研究大学院大学教授

2022年 1月 7日
特に女性の一人旅は疑われたという。「女改めの実際」という説明書きがあり、何のかんのと一連のプロセスを通り抜けるまで、「約一刻(2時間)を要した」と書いてあった。2時間! 今回私が2年ぶりに海外に出て5日間のヨーロッパ行きから帰り、成田空港で入国に要したおよその時間であった。別に女であるから厳しく見られたとは思わないが、外国から入ってくるものは、すべてバイ菌扱いである。










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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Can “Isoationist” Japan accept diversity?