【by Sara Park, June 2022】
Scholars have noted that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has significantly slowed down globalization as strengthened border control was imposed by the states. However, were people moving freely before the pandemic? Likewise, do the novel border restrictions truly keep people from moving around the world? In general, the answer to both of these questions is likely yes, but exceptions should be noted. Many people, including irregular migrants, stateless persons, and asylum seekers, were less able or unable to travel freely before the pandemic. The possibility of free travel and the movement of people across borders were determined by different countries and regions in different ways, specifically through the regime of visas and passports.
As studies on passports have shown, one of the main roles of the state is to ensure the free movement of people and goods. The mythical idea of the good old days, when people could travel freely around the world, is likely not accurate, as borders have never been 100% open nor closed. Thus, the restrictions and freedoms imposed by border control must be the subject of investigation in each case.
The author migrated to Finland in February 2020, and her children followed in the following month (March 2020). The author has traveled between Japan and Finland five times since then. The author and the children have Japanese citizenship and have obtained permission to stay in Finland by virtue of the author’s profession as a researcher and her children’s relationship to her. In the following sections, freedom of movement during a pandemic is examined, focusing on the legal status of restrictions and on pandemic preparedness. First, I review the regulations imposed in Japan and Finland from the beginning of 2020 to June 2022 and then detail the state of implementation of these regulations from the author’s own experience.
Formal Restrictions to Entry from March 2020 to May 2022
The earliest restrictions to entry that the Japanese government put in place was a ban on foreigners arriving from Hubei Province, China, instituted January 31, 2020. This entry restriction was gradually extended to 24 countries by the end of March, and all travelers originating in this group were forced to undergo a 14-day quarantine at a location designated by the local quarantine station chief, and they were restricted from using domestic public transportation. On April 01, 2020, Japan restricted the entry of non-Japanese from a total of 49 additional countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Korea, for a total of 73 countries (this list was subsequently expanded to 159 countries and regions on August 28, 2020).
Amid growing concern regarding labor shortages, on June 18, 2020, the Suga administration has introduced a partial ban on certain foreigners, adding the business track and the resident track to categorize entrants. Each track allows certain types of foreigners to enter Japan. Entrants on the business track, including short-term business travelers and certain others, can conduct certain activities during the 14-day quarantine period after entry if they submit a plan of activities in Japan and other documents. Residents, on the other hand, are still required to undergo a 14-day home quarantine period. And nonresidents were not allowed entry at all.
However, Japan again imposed restrictions on the entry of nonresident aliens in December 2020, introducing a requirement for evidence of a negative COVID-19 test certificate from 72 h before travel to Japan and suspending the business and residential track travel program on January 14, 2021. Entry restrictions remained in place, especially during 2021, after the discovery of the highly infectious Omicron variant. Effective November 30, 2021, Japan once again entirely banned nonresident foreigners from entering the country.
These entry restrictions were widely criticized domestically and internationally, damaging the country’s international reputation. Among those that were significantly affected were international students who planned to study in Japan and were unable to in 2020 and 2021 due to the government’s decision to prevent non-nationals to enter, including students. As late as February 2022, almost 2 yrs. after it closed its borders, “some of the nation’s most prominent foreign business lobby groups and student representatives stuck abroad have called for a relaxation of the visa rules.” In June 2022, the Kishida administration began accepting non-tourists and eased entry restrictions, amid calls from universities to allow international students, as well as from business executives who value international trade and even some members of the ruling party.
In March 2022, Japan began undertaking measures to shorten the quarantine period from 14 to 7 to 0 days, depending on the destination and vaccination status, allowing new entry visas to be issued to foreigners for short stays (3 months or less) and longer stays for the purpose of business, employment, study, and so on, when the person who is based in Japan has completed the required application in the Entry-Release Medical Verification System (ERFS). As of May 26, 2022, Japan started accepting tourists again, with some authority being delegated to travel agencies.
Finland began to restrict the entry of tourists into Finland on March 16, when Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (the leader of the Social Democratic Party) declared a state of emergency in accordance with the Emergency Powers Act (1552/2011) and the Infectious Diseases Act (1227/2016), including the denial of entry to all but holders of Finnish citizenship and foreigners with residential permission in Finland, combined with a 2-week home quarantine after entry. Beginning March 25, free movement between Uusimaa County, including Helsinki and the surrounding metropolitan area, and other localities was also requested (travel was allowed if necessary for work or if there were urgent personal needs). Initially, these closures and self-restraint requests were only valid for about a month, until April 13. However, in April, these were extended until May 13. However, a list of critical occupations, whose travel was deemed necessary (introduced by The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment), was also adopted on April 07.
From May 14, 2020, the statutory restrictions on border traffic were lifted on cross-border traffic across the Schengen area’s internal borders, allowing employment or commission-related commuting and other essential traffic. Border controls were extended for all internal and external borders until June 14, when Finland lifted some restrictions on border traffic for travel (including tourists) from six adjacent countries, namely, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
After June 2020, Finland adopted a different system for EU/Schengen countries (internal borders) and other non-EU/non-Schengen countries (external borders): visitors from EU/Schengen countries were allowed free entry, but entrants from non-EU/non-Schengen countries were not. Non-EU and non-Schengen countries were divided into so-called green light countries, where entry to Finland was possible despite restrictions, and all other countries, whose entrants were required from winter 2021 to 2022 to undergo PCR testing and home quarantine 72 h after entry to Finland.
However, Finland continued to accept entry to Finland for essential reasons, including “work that is significant for the functioning of society or supply security,” “health care and rescue service personnel (including first aid) and elderly care professionals,” “diplomats, staff of international organizations, military personnel, and humanitarian aid workers,” “state representatives participating in international negotiations,” and “persons in need of international protection.” Additionally, persons traveling with a residence permit in Finland and those with pressing family matters or other personal reasons were also allowed entry to Finland.
During the entry restrictions, Finnish nationals, their families, and citizens of EU and Schengen countries residing in Finland and their family members were permitted to enter the country, including third-country nationals who had a valid residence permit granted by the Finnish authorities.
The country then lifted all entry restrictions on July 01, 2022. Before that, foreigners entering Finland from outside the EU and the Schengen area were required to either present a certificate of a fully approved COVID-19 vaccination series or a certificate of having previously had the COVID-19 disease and one approved COVID-19 vaccine or an EU Digital COVID Certificate for COVID-19 disease less than 6 months previously for those born in or before 2006.
Border Controls in Japan and Finland
In May 2020, our entry into Japan required a PCR test at the airport. Then, 14 days of home quarantine was also required, during which the local health center called us every morning, in addition to the requirement that we report our health status via an online application (on LINE) to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. This regime was largely unchanged at the end of November, but the requirement for the PCR test was changed from a nasal swab to saliva test, and I began to be called by the quarantine station, which was under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, instead by from the local public health center. We were also instructed to turn on our smartphone location services for 14 days to ensure that we remained at home.
In May 2021, it became mandatory to have a negative COVID-19 test upon entry, a 3-day (72-h) stay in a designated hotel, and a 14-day quarantine (beginning with 3 days in the hotel, followed by 11 days at home). The pledges included taking a saliva test at the airport, not having contact with anyone not living with them, reporting their health status via email daily, using an app designated by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, and maintaining their location on an overseas visitor locator which provides location information several times a day. During the in-home quarantine, I received a video call once a day through an application (MySOS) that I was instructed to download to my smartphone at the airport, but after 7 days, it began to tell me that I had left home, even though I was at home. I later found out that I had forgotten to change my location after leaving the quarantine hotel. The basic settings of the application had me staying at the quarantine hotel in Tokyo, instead of at my home in Kyoto.
In November 2021, the basic quarantine procedures (negative pre-boarding certificate, saliva test, submission of a written pledge, downloading the smartphone application at the airport, and staying at home for 14 days) remained the same. However, a video call once a day, an automated voice call with artificial intelligence for adults (and a call with the application “MySOS” for children), and location updates twice a day were new requirements.
For the May 2022 entry, a third COVID-19 vaccination was received, so a negative certificate was submitted at boarding, and a saliva test was performed at the airport, but home quarantine was not required.
For those with a residence permit, entering Finland was never challenging; unlike in Japan, Finland’s restrictions, although they were one of the most severe restrictions among EU member countries, entering Finland as a non-national resident was not a problem.
In March 2020, my children entered Finland and stayed at home for a 2-week quarantine; after that, they went to daycare as they had done before, without any need for testing. When we traveled to Japan from Finland, we showed our residential permits to a border guard officer, who asked us for our reason for travel outside of Finland. We answered “seeing my husband, the children’s father. Maybe it’s not essential,” but the officer assured me that “yes, it is essential.” On our return to Finland in August 2020, there were no restrictions or requirements imposed, so we entered the country as normal and returned home by public transportation.
In January 2021, when Finland began to require the entrants from outside the EU or the Schengen area negative test results for COVID-19, non-national residents were exempt from this requirement. We took PCR tests upon entry and were requested not to use public transportation for 72 h, and we were required to undergo home quarantine for 72 h after entry to Finland. After 72 h, we took a city-provided PCR tests and tested negative. After this, my children resumed daycare and school. The 72 h of home quarantine was required again in August 2021, although we did not take PCR tests at the airport and were not requested to refrain from public transportation. In January 2021, neither testing nor home quarantine was required, nor was having a PCR test within 72 h of entry.
I compare entry restrictions and quarantine measures between Japan and Finland, as well as the duration and monitoring of entry restrictions and home quarantine in Japan. First, we consider the scope of entry restrictions to Japan and Finland from March 2020 to May 2022. In principle, Finland accepted all residents regardless of their nationalities, and family members for entry, requiring quarantine and inspection depending on the departure point of the entrant, while Japan accepted Japanese nationals and special permanent residents for entry. Because the virus does not select its hosts by their citizenship, this preference effectively privileges Japanese nationality over suppressing disease transmission.
The Japanese government allowed Japanese nationals to enter Japan but not their family members, and it did not allow non-Japanese nationals to enter Japan in general without a special reason. In other words, during this period, it was impossible to enter Japan without passing through a bureaucratic process that required a lot of time and effort. For example, if you needed to obtain a family register in your country of departure to prove your family relationship, the procedure could be burdensome. If you live in a town without a Japanese embassy, the hassle of obtaining a family register can be significant.
Although the total number of such cases is unknown, on several instances, Japanese nationals were denied entry to Japan after presenting invalid negative certificates at the airport. Because no detailed information is publicly available on these cases, the actual circumstances of these denials of entry remain unknown. However, the denial of entry and subsequent deportation of Japanese nationals may not violate the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act at all. This may be a reason why the site of verification of certificates upon immigration inspection has changed from the place of entry (within Japan) to the place of departure. The Japanese government has previously forcibly expelled Japanese nationals from the country, and Koreans and Taiwanese who held Japanese citizenship until the end of April 1952 are now considered to have entered the country illegally between 1945 and 1952.
The following three points can be made from the above. First, those who enter Japan from abroad are not allowed to bring their families, regardless of their nationality; second, due to the exceptional circumstances of the global outbreak of COVID-19, the Japanese government imposed cumbersome procedures for entry into Japan, instead of choosing the principles of nationality and right of residence, having each entrant judged by the individual in charge (in other words, the government failed its own judgments from the top ); and finally, Japan has a historical precedent of not allowing nationals to be able to return to their country of citizenship.
Japan’s system of home quarantine is considered strict or complicated, and so it is, compared to the near nonexistence of measures to enforce or monitor home quarantine for Finnish nationals and residents upon entry to Finland. However, after experiencing home quarantine and surveillance in Japan three times, the author wonders whether these measures were really intended to monitor the entrants. When the author entered Japan in June 2021, she was asked to download the smartphone app for quarantine. The author showed the screen to the quarantine officer, but the officer did not observe the screen, instead only checked the document once he had heard the answer. It was as if the quarantine officer’s purpose was not to verify that the author had downloaded the necessary apps but simply to produce documentation.
In addition, I did not receive multiple calls in a day; one call was made per day (usually between 12 and 2 pm), and I was able to go out for a short period. At the airport, I did get confirmation from a quarantine officer that going out and doing minimal shopping. Furthermore, in the November 2021 case, the calls were made at similar times of the day. There were no penalties for not answering these calls, and the MHLW website only displayed in katakana the names of those who did not make all the health checks via email, location reports, and video calls at least once in 14 days. In other words, penalties for quarantine measures were virtually nonexistent. The author wonders about the purpose of taking these measures. It cannot be denied that the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare wanted to strictly monitor those who entered Japan but could not secure the budget and manpower to do so.
Alternatively, we cannot deny the possibility that the purpose of the surveillance measures was not to keep the entrants in their homes but rather to monitor them. In this case, those implementing quarantine measures would not show their work to the people entering or residing in Japan but to other ministries and other departments of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.
In this short article, we present a record of the administrative procedures of immigration control in Japan, based on five trips to and from Japan and Finland from March 2020 to May 2022. There were multiple discrepancies between the restrictions to entry that were propagated formally and those imposed on entry to Japan. In other words, entry into Japan was permitted for Japanese nationals or special permanent residents, but whether family members were permitted to accompany them depended on individual circumstances, and documentation was required to explain those circumstances. The refusal to allow non-Japanese nationals to bring their family members with them upon entry into Japan is not limited to those who apply for the notorious technical internship system. In addition, it is not only those from the former colonies were denied entry into Japan, regardless of their Japanese nationality. In other words, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Japanese were partially subjected to Japan’s infamous immigration control policy. Although Japan’s quarantine system is strict, there are noted loopholes in practice. However, if these measures are given more attention than keeping entrants at home, burdensome procedures are entailed.
In Finland, on the other hand, it was challenging to find a discrepancy between formal entry restrictions and actual operation. The two countries have different policies with regard to entry restrictions and quarantine, based on different objectives and criteria. Therefore, a simple comparison of Japan and Finland may not yield valid results. However, Japanese immigration and quarantine can be assessed as follows: When the government refrains from an initial decision based on certain rules, it puts the cost of making individual judgments and proving “special circumstances” at the hands of the entrant, the quarantine officer, and others in the field.
Japan is said to have entered a second Sakoku period due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the number of people entering Japan has fallen by more than 90%. One reason for this is that the Japanese are afraid of people coming to Japan from outside, including other Japanese, and that efforts to monitor those entering the country represent this monitoring, being done by someone or something other than the entrants themselves.
Sara Park, University of Helsinki, Finland
 Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, “Mizugiwa taisaku ni tsuite,” accessed 30 June 2022, https://www.mhlw.go.jp/stf/seisakunitsuite/bunya/0000121431_00209.html.
 “Calls for Japan to relax COVID-19 entry restrictions intensify,” Japan Times, February 10, 2022, accessed 30 June 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/02/10/national/students-business-entry-restrictions/.
 Finnish Border Guards, accessed June 30, 2022, https://raja.fi/en/guidelines-for-border-traffic-during-pandemic.