From a Global Citizen to Belonging Nowhere: Story of a Gaijin ‘in’ Japan

I had just taken 4 flights and countless trains in 10 days to explore the beautiful places in Japan. I covered several places starting from Kyoto to Shizuoka to Hakone to Tokyo to Hokkaido in January 2020. Life was great, I was independent. I had a social life. I made and met friends from all over the globe. I went to places most can only dream of. I was happy. I was alive. Perhaps I was even a global citizen.

Then it was February 2020. I came home for the holidays before COVID started, well it had only started in China and it wasn’t a pandemic. I was supposed to go back to Japan in March 2020. Thinking I had only a limited time at home, I had eye surgery, celebrated numerous Indian festivals, and had the time of my life with my family. The year 2020 was amazing so far. ❤

I was optimistic, I was happy.

In March 2020, my university went online and I wasn’t allowed to enter Japan (somewhere around then) and I was ecstatic to have a bit more time to spend with my family, enjoy real and great (!) Indian food, have my meals cooked by the best chef (my mom), and talk to my friends (and their families) in their home countries over zoom.

It was fun, everything was good. I was working hard to graduate.

Thought the ban’s a good measure that’ll only last a few months and I would be reunited with my global friends soon. I didn’t. Neither did I get a graduation ceremony as I still couldn’t enter Japan. My diploma arrived a week after the ceremony through the post. I had worked incredibly hard to graduate in just 3 years instead of the normal 4, but this diploma in a postal envelope seemed to mean nothing. I understand a lot of people around the globe didn’t get graduation ceremonies, but if there wasn’t a travel ban, at least I would have got my diploma in person like the others in Japan did! I was sad, maybe even depressed due to some factors, but I was still optimistic. I began my second degree in Japan in September 2020, online. Spoiler: it is now my 3rd out of the 4 semesters of the master’s program, still online.

I still haven’t met my classmates, teachers, or friends about 22 months into the (continuing) ban.

Japan did open borders for a brief period around November 2020. However, I delayed going back for about a month because I was too busy with my master’s assignments, I had the opportunity to celebrate Diwali, the greatest Indian festival (lol apart from Holi, of course), with my family, at home, after 4 years, and well, the logistics just didn’t work out in the middle of my mid-term and final exams. Sure, if Japan had informed us when it would close borders again, I would’ve packed my bags then and there. Soon enough, you guessed it, some bans were re-imposed and my re-entry permit expired.

I just lost all rights as a Japanese resident in a whoosh.

But it didn’t matter, because I got a new COE soon enough, and I could get a new visa in just about a week. Did I? Nope. As if the travel bans weren’t enough, the issuance of visas was also stopped! I finally got a visa around the end of April 2021. As I had been preparing to volunteer in the Tokyo Olympics for 3 years, I planned to go back in May or June (after getting fully vaccinated), just in time to complete my quarantine and start volunteering (at my own expense) for the Tokyo Olympics at Kōdōkan, the oldest, largest, and most prestigious Judo Institute. However, Japan banned India because of the deadly delta variant wave in the country. I was disappointed, but I supported it because India, and other countries, did have a severe wave of delta and Japan was only protecting its citizens…right? Well if that was it, didn’t unvaccinated athletes, Olympic-related travelers, media persons, volunteers, representatives, and MEXT Scholarship students from abroad, and domestic tourists pose a threat to the Japanese people? Moreover, why did Japan not welcome us in when the delta wave in India and other countries was under control within a couple of months? Reason: Olympics? Fine. Another one of unique and once-in-a-lifetime experiences snatched away. I was getting used to it. My visa again expired before I could enter Japan.

But maybe Japan would let us enter after the Olympics? Nope. It would, however, invite international DJs for large concerts.

If (may I add, mostly vaccinated, as most countries started vaccinations much earlier than Japan did) international students, workers, and families are such serious threats for Japan, why are (maybe unvaccinated) several international DJs allowed to hold large concerts with thousands of people without 2 weeks quarantine? Surely, the science here is on a vacation.

Okay then maybe Japan would let us enter after the change of PMs? Nope. Japan travel ban and the issue of gaijins were indeed a tool for the government to… I don’t know, justify internal politics or promote right-wing agendas? After a long wait as issuance of visas was still halted, when my “special category” was allowed to apply around the end of September 2021, I had to ask my university for an extra screening certificate that proves I’m still studying in Japan, as if paying tuition and studying in the middle of the night wasn’t proof enough. After getting the document, I applied for a visa again. Well, fast forward to November end, my flight to Japan was in a week. I was finally going back to Japan! Woohoo! Then came the Omicron variant, so far understood to be easily transmissible (in countries with the lowest vaccination rates, but this fact was ignored) but with only mild symptoms. You guessed it again, I didn’t go to Japan. On November 30th, Japan suspended all issued visas once again and completely shut the borders. Applying for visas and getting our visas suspended without notice was becoming a trend. If it was a fashion trend, I might support it, but this trend was stopping my entire life, career, and education from moving forward.

Well again, the ban might be to protect people… right? But protect from what? The threat was not present in countries other than the 10 African nations with a severe wave. If students and workers were considered essential, they would be allowed to enter with extended quarantine and tests. Mind you, diplomats from even those countries can enter Japan, Japanese people from those or any country can enter Japan, regardless of vaccination status. Does the virus read passport or diplomatic status? Looks like it! Guess it’s a good thing I’m studying International Relations. Once I become a diplomat, I’ll be immune to any virus!

Well, now my visa will expire again before I can enter Japan. Who knows if and when Japan will start issuing new visas?

Maybe Japan doesn’t trust the WHO telling states to not overreact with blanket travel bans for the Omicron variant, but it does seem to believe that all foreigners are threats, no matter the evidence to the contrary.

I’ve seen some right-wing haters on Twitter, but I don’t hate Japan. If I didn’t think Japan was worth my time, effort, and money, I wouldn’t have waited so long to be able to enter the country. The aim of this article is not to hate Japan, but to spread awareness about how COVID-related travel bans are negatively affecting international students, workers, and families in the long-term. Little did I expect that a ban for a couple of months would become almost a couple of years for me, and hundreds of thousands of others. Are Japanese people stopping their lives? Nope, they’re traveling abroad, and locally, for study, work, or even tourism!

It makes me so angry to spend millions of yen on tuition fees and living expenses (I already had an apartment in Japan when I left for the Spring vacation so rent is to be paid) while not even being in Japan. While I pay millions for tuition, I can’t access the facilities or many books I need for my masters’ thesis. Neither can I have a “study abroad life” that I see students in Japan and students in Europe enjoying like COVID never even existed. I haven’t tested positive for the virus even once, but COVID has tested positive in managing to ruin my student life experience. Or has it? Covid has been severe in Europe, but Europe has welcomed international students with open arms since 2020 because they are considered essential. Perhaps COVID has not stopped my life, the Japan travel ban has? COVID didn’t stop international students in Europe or even in Japan from having the time of their lives. Unfair, unwelcoming, and what many on Twitter are calling Xenophobic, Japanese immigration policies have stopped the lives of people like me. Although I appreciate my university, which was one of the few universities in Japan to adapt to the pandemic very quickly, for making the arrangements for students to study online, is this really what “study abroad” should look like? People have also had to choose research topics that don’t require a focus on or fieldwork in Japan, even though one of the main aims for researchers choosing Japan is to be able to study about the country. Does Japan not realize it is losing scholars, students, workers, and families that have dedicated their lives to this country?

Since April 2020, I’ve been studying online, at odd hours in the middle of the night. Do you really expect students like me to have the same motivation and energy to participate in online classes in the middle of the night as students in Japan studying during daylight in classrooms?

I cannot fully live in my home country too, because I have to work with time differences, which means my classes start at 5 am, and by noon, I’m too tired and sleep-deprived to have human interaction or do research. I spend the day sleeping, being stressed, or doing my assignments. While I live with my family, I have no time to spend with them or my friends due to mental and physical exhaustion.

Because of the uncertainty and a complete lack of clarity or an opening plan by Japan, I have had to give up going to concerts (while Japan allows my favorite DJs to enter but not residents, students, workers, and families), or making plans to travel or go to some events with my family or friends. I cannot buy a gym membership because I don’t know when “I might have to pack my bags and leave for Japan”. I have spent these (almost) 2 years (about 22 months) in the same room without even interacting much with people or enjoying the beautiful places in India due to increased workload, stress, and severely distressed mental health. Not to mention that not everyone in their 20s wants to live with and depend on family long-term.

The fact that almost two years of my early 20s youth have been stolen and wasted by the Japan travel ban cannot be ignored or compensated and makes me depressed.

Studying in Japan since 2017, I had worked so hard on improving my Japanese ability, but it has become worse due to being away from Japan for almost 2 years. So Japan wants my money, but doesn’t want me to improve my skills and build a career? I cannot do job hunting and I cannot apply for scholarships no matter how good my GPA is because I am not in Japan (which is opposite to pre-covid when I was selected for too many scholarships and had to reject some of them because of some rules). I’m not recommended for any living expenses scholarships probably because I’m not in Japan, but shouldn’t they take into account that I’m paying rent and tuition still? I cannot do part-time jobs because I am not in Japan. I cannot study well because I am not in Japan. But I have to pay almost a million yen every year even when I am not in Japan. My entire life is in Japan, but I am not.

Why have I spent my entire adult life studying Japanese and Japanese culture, when I can’t be in Japan?

Well, I moved to Japan right after high school and I love living there and studying the Japanese language. So, I would like to be able to use the time, money, and energy dedicated to Japan over 5 years to move forward with my life and career. However, Japan’s immigration policies, are once again, proving that Japan may not yet truly be accustomed to living with pandemics in the 21st century.

I even got the opportunity to study abroad in the UK this fall semester 2021; but I couldn’t pursue it because all my money and, well, my entire life including clothes and documents are in my Japanese bank and apartment, respectively. I tried to get my money transferred to India at least, but the bank and my university said nothing can be done as I am not in Japan. I am privately financed, and I needed my money to study abroad in the UK! Assets are frozen for criminals, but here’s my hard-earned money, not accessible because Japanese banks still can’t properly go online in 2021 or make slight adjustments when I was even willing to give my rights over to my university. This might be worse than still using fax machines, to be honest.

The Japanese government gives us absolutely no clue about when we can enter, leaving us in limbo, so I couldn’t make plans for PHYSICALLY going to Japan to get my money before going to the UK. Not to mention I had to do the quarantine in both places at my own expense. I don’t mind doing it, but I need a timeline from the Japanese government to plan the whole freaking saga!

So Japan doesn’t want me to study abroad in Japan, but it also won’t let me study abroad elsewhere? Talk about being stuck!

The lack of a clear timeline and communication by the Japanese government doesn’t prove that “it is an uncertain time we are living in because of COVID.” Instead, it shows the lack of organization, transparency, belief in science, identification of foreign nationals as being important for Japan, and respect and empathy for them.

Well, so here I am, still in my childhood room, writing on a computer. My mental, emotional, and physical health and academic and professional development are taking the toll of the travel ban.

I recognize my privileges still and I am sure I am incredibly luckier than others to be alive, safe, and well at home. After all, some people waiting to enter Japan had even given up their homes and jobs before getting banned from entering without notice, soon before their flight! But I cannot forget about the opportunities I have had to give up due to the Japan travel ban. I did not deserve it and I won’t get my time back. I have promoted Japan since 2017 and claimed that it was the best experience of my life (which it was, I miss it so much). When people used to say that Japan has racism or is old-fashioned, based on their decades-old experiences, I used to explain to them why Japan is awesome. But the looong ban does make you wonder if the Japanese government really sees all foreigners as dangerous, no matter the scientific evidence and logic about the state of the pandemic in each country. It’s not hidden that the ‘island nation’ has isolated itself through history, but is it really justified to do the same in the 21st century?

Indeed, only Japanese passport holders can truly be considered Japanese, but it is naive to think that only Japanese passport holders call Japan home.

The ban has forced me to re-evaluate my decision of living in Japan long-term. Now I want to finish my degree and start my life again elsewhere, in a country that’ll not only appreciate my money but also my efforts, time, talents, passion, and dreams. I might fall in love with Japan once I am back again, but the travel ban has left me feeling like I belong nowhere. I have two lives, one in Japan and one in India. But at the same time, I belong in neither of those lives completely.




International student in Japan since 2017. Always seeking new and exciting life experiences. Stay tuned! ❤

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International student in Japan since 2017. Always seeking new and exciting life experiences. Stay tuned! ❤

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