Kady, a 32-year-old who works as a copywriter in Osaka, flew back to her home country of Britain in December to attend to personal matters. She planned to return to Japan in mid-May and already had a flight booked.

But her plans were upended when the Japanese government added Britain to a list of countries that were subject to travel restrictions applied to ensure coronavirus cases are not imported.

"When the U.K. was added to the entry ban list in early April, I found out from the embassy Twitter account with roughly 48 hours' notice. I was still in the middle of things going on here with me and my family, so it wasn't possible for me to just drop everything here and try to jump on a plane to get back in time within two days," she said.

Kady, who asked for her last name to not be used in this story, is one of the roughly 3 million foreign residents of Japan who have been affected by the entry ban.

Many are frustrated at how wide a net the measures cast. All foreign nationals, including permanent residents and spouses of Japanese nationals that have traveled to any of the listed countries within the last two weeks, are being denied entry.

"It blows my mind that we tax-paying residents are being treated the same as tourists and are unable to return to our homes," said a 37-year-old Australian, who asked to remain anonymous. She has been unable to return since traveling back to Australia with her toddler for Christmas and to undergo medical treatment.

Arriving passengers (in seats) fill out forms as quarantine officials watch at Narita airport near Tokyo on March 21, 2020. Travelers from Europe, Egypt and Iran are required to self-quarantine for 14 days after their arrival as Japan attempts to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. (Kyodo)

Some question why they are treated differently from Japanese nationals who the government has discouraged from traveling abroad but can re-enter the country as long as they are tested for COVID-19 on arrival and self-quarantine for two weeks.

There are "special exceptional circumstances" under which foreign residents can be given exemptions, including for humanitarian considerations such as the death of a family member overseas. Still, these are granted by the Immigration Services Agency on a case-by-case basis and are far from guaranteed.


Specific examples of cases where permission for re-entry may be granted (Ministry of Justice, as of June 12) 

Japan's tough virus control measures are in stark contrast to other countries such as Germany, which is allowing those who legally reside there to re-enter regardless of nationality. China, where the outbreak originated, has begun easing travel restrictions for foreigners, restarting business trips to and from South Korea.

As the number of new infections in Japan falls and the economy tentatively reopens, some families remain forcibly split by the travel restrictions. A 23-year-old American, who also asked to remain anonymous, said she recently married a Japanese national but is unable to join him in Japan to start their life together.

"I really wish there was some sort of timeline of when the border will open because I just want to go home to my husband and new family," she said.

"It's really tough being newly married but not able to be together or even know when we can see each other again."

A total of 111 countries and regions currently fall under Japan's entry ban, including the United States, much of Asia including China and South Korea, and all of Europe. The government has not given an end-date for the measures, saying only that they will remain in place "for the time being."

Photo taken in the international arrival lobby of Tokyo's Haneda airport on March 30, 2020, shows most international flights cancelled amid the spread of the coronavirus. (Kyodo)

According to government sources, discussions are taking place to remove Thailand, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand from the list, as the countries have got their coronavirus outbreaks under control and the relatively thin traffic to and from Japan is seen as manageable.

For many foreign residents, the economic burden of being locked out of Japan is particularly worrying.

A 25-year-old Ph.D. student from China who asked to be known by Li, her family name, was supposed to attend Waseda University in Tokyo from the spring semester.

Her visa application was suspended due to Japan's travel restrictions leaving her stuck in her home country taking classes online while paying for an apartment she rented from March.

"It's possible to cancel it, but I'm worried about not being able to find another one," she said.

Kady, the British copywriter, said she was worried about the state of the job market when she finally returns to Japan.

"I've read about unemployment levels rising, job offers for new grads being withdrawn, companies freezing their hiring processes. I'm hoping that the push to restart tourism means English-speaking writers will remain in demand. I expect overall salaries to be lower, though."

The entry ban has reignited a long-running and at times fraught conversation about how welcoming or not Japan is to foreigners, and how serious the government is about attracting overseas labor to cover for the country's aging workforce.

"We're talking about people that have made Japan their home, whether they're permanent residents or long-term residents or those here on work visas," said Shoichi Ibusuki, a Tokyo-based lawyer who specializes in immigration issues. "To keep them from coming back without proper cause is a violation of human rights."

In April last year, the government created a new visa status for foreigners to come work in Japan in certain industries, including construction and agriculture. Just 3,987 people signed up for the program over the next 12 months, less than 10 percent of the government's projections.

"The fact is, Japan isn't that attractive for foreigners anymore. And now this entry ban is hurting Japan's reputation even further," Ibusuki said.

(Donican Lam and Reito Kaneko contributed to this report)

Related coverage:

Japan says foreigners with humanitarian needs exempt from entry ban

Japan eyes easing ban on entry from Thailand, Australia, 2 others

Hotels, university offer free stays for foreigners stranded in Japan

Q&A: Japan's coronavirus-related border controls