Japan eases its tourist travel ban, but many Canadians who want to visit family there still face near-impossible obstacles

A man wearing a face mask waits to board a plane at Yonaguni Airport in Japan on April 13.Carl Court/Getty Images

In video calls from Tokyo, where Alexandre Valiquette lives with his wife and children, his three-year-old son calls Francine Grift “nana”, while his youngest son, at seven months old, just gurgles and smiles at the ‘screen.

Listening to that gurgle through a speaker is the closest Mrs. Grift, who is Mr. Valiquette’s mother, has ever met her youngest grandchild. She lives in Saint John, and the extended family hasn’t been physically together since before the pandemic. A telephone screen now appears to Mr. Valiquette as an insurmountable barrier. “There is this constant feeling of knowing that a touch is impossible,” he said.

The reason for this long separation, and many others like it, is that Japan is one of less than a dozen countries that has remained closed to foreign tourists since the pandemic began. It closed its borders in 2020 and has only in recent weeks begun to readmit foreigners who have permanent residence there, as well as a small number of students and business people.

Until recently, there were no exceptions for family members of Japanese residents, meaning Ms Grift was unable to visit. She saw a silver lining when the Japanese government announced a new travel visa in February that would allow the family to travel to the country as early as April. But obtaining the visa requires complicated supporting documents, such as a letter from a guarantor and a complete itinerary. And applications can only be submitted in person at Japanese embassies.

As a result, it remains nearly impossible for most Canadians to travel to Japan. Ms Grift gave up her intention to do so after realizing that the closest embassy to her home is in Montreal, more than eight and a half hours away by car. Flying there would cost him hundreds of dollars.

“I just felt like crying,” she said.

Even those who can enter the country are still subject to strict requirements, including mandatory quarantine.

Mr. Valiquette, who works for Square Enix, a video game company, has lived in Japan for 10 years and has his permanent residence there. But even that, he said, was made tenuous by pandemic restrictions.

Francine Grift poses for a photo with her son, Alexandre Valiquette and her two-year-old son in 2019.

If a Japanese citizen is caught violating quarantine or testing requirements, even accidentally, potential penalties include fines and public disclosure of their personal information. Foreign nationals with permanent residency, like Mr. Valiquette, can be stripped of their immigration status and even deported.

Mr Valiquette said he considered bringing his entire family to Canada last month, but decided against it because he feared the Japanese government would tighten entry requirements without warning. If that were to happen while he was away, he couldn’t come back – separated from his breadwinner, wife and children.

“On a whim, Japan seems almost ready to cut off all forms of aid to its immigrant population,” he said. “Getting sent off seems to be a lot more on the table here.”

Ms. Grift said Mr. Valiquette and his family will fly to New Brunswick in August if there are no changes to Japan’s travel rules. But she doesn’t have much hope.

“They don’t care,” she said of the Japanese government.

There are approximately 5,410 Canadians living in Japan who have registered with the Registration of Canadians Abroad service, Global Affairs Canada wrote in an emailed statement. The actual number of Canadians in the country is likely higher, as registration is voluntary. Many live there on student visas or 12-month working holiday visas.

Matthew Fukushima, a doctoral student at Toyo University in Tokyo who is in Japan on a student visa, has not seen his family in Windsor, Ont., for two years.

Mr. Fukushima has a Japanese husband, Daigo. But same-sex marriages are not recognized by the Japanese government, meaning no special exemptions were available to members of Mr Fukushima’s family despite Daigo’s Japanese citizenship.

The Japanese government began readmitting students to the country on April 1, but Fukushima said he still had concerns because border changes can be sudden.

Matthew Fukushima and his husband, Daigo, in Windsor, Ontario, in February 2020.

Japan originally announced in February that it would start letting students return on March 1. Hearing the news, Mr. Fukushima bought a plane ticket so that he can visit the house in December. Within weeks, the Japanese government reversed the readmission policy as it worked to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.

Mr. Fukushima said he was relieved that his family could finally come to visit him in Japan following the new travel visa.

“I don’t think they’ll be applying to come right away, but it’s good to know they could come if, knock on wood, something happens to me and they need to be here.” he declared. He does not intend to leave the country anytime soon.

“I’m afraid they’ll ban us again while I’m out of the country,” he said.

In the meantime, Mr. Fukushima does his best to start or end each day by talking to his parents. on the phone. But the 1 p.m. time difference makes calls difficult to schedule.

Last year, her mother was diagnosed with severe liver disease. He started making his cheesy potato recipe whenever he was homesick. His mother has since recovered, but he said it was hard to be away during his illness.

“I’m relieved to be able to see them now if needed, but still upset that I can’t go see them easily,” he said. “I’m also quite angry with the government for always banning all foreign residents at the start – including permanent residents.”

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