TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Wednesday that Japan would gradually begin allowing thousands of foreign residents who have been stranded outside Japan the right to return, provided they are tested for covid-19 before arrival.

But Abe did not indicate when the process would begin, even as Japan deals with a rise in confirmed cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The announcement followed months of increasingly desperate appeals from business leaders and foreign residents, who have been banned from reentering the country since April — ostensibly because they could be carrying the coronavirus — at the same time as Japanese nationals living abroad have been allowed to return.

To critics of the policy, it was another blow to “Brand Japan” and the country’s efforts to attract foreign investment and establish itself as a regional financial hub.

Japan is alone among in the Group of Seven rich industrialized nations in discriminating between residents and nationals in this way, and business leaders from the United States and Europe joined Wednesday to slam the restrictions.

There are around 2.8 million foreigners living in Japan, a country of more than 126 million people. Most foreigners are effectively barred from leaving — knowing they could not come back except on humanitarian grounds such as attending a funeral.

Travel lockdown since April

Abe’s decision, when it’s implemented, could potentially allow 88,000 people who left before April 3 and were stranded abroad the chance to gradually return. But it would leave around 12,000 people who left Japan after that date still stuck abroad, Japanese media outlets reported.

“This poses a serious impediment for many of our members and their families, for their lives in Japan and certainly for their conducting business in Japan,” Christopher LaFleur, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, told a news conference. “There really doesn’t appear to be a rational scientific basis for maintaining this policy.”

Critics of Japan’s border lockdown contend it has punished the very foreigners who have invested their lives in Japan — making them feel relegated to a second-class status.

That’s a feeling already in many executives’ minds after the arrest of auto industry executive Carlos Ghosn last year, with many believing he received harsher treatment from Japan’s justice system than a local executive would have been accorded. Ghosn later had himself smuggled out of the country to Lebanon.

'An afterthought'

“The damage has already been done,” said management consultant Rochelle Kopp, referring to the entry restrictions. “This has gone on for a very long time, and that’s sent a very negative message to foreign businesses and residents — that we are just an afterthought.”

Michael Mroczek, chairman of the European Business Council in Japan, said a poll of 376 member companies found that 85 percent had been directly affected by the travel ban, while 44 percent had suffered financial losses.

While Japanese people are generally able to travel to Europe and the United States, Germany has demanded reciprocity and banned Japanese people from entering.

It’s also deeply ironic when Japan spends millions of dollars trying to attract foreign investment, foreign labor and foreign students.

“It comes at a particularly awkward time, as Japan is talking about how it can strengthen its appeal as a regional and global financial center,” added LaFleur. “This is a factor that businesses are really going to have to think very seriously about.”

'Persona non grata'

But it’s the message that it sends to foreigners in Japan that appears to hurt the most.

Mroczek has a Japanese wife and two children with Japanese citizenship but said he has been unable to explain to them why different rules apply.

“My kids are asking about that. They are saying, papa, why are you treated in a different way than the Japanese?” he said. “I don’t know what to say to them. We are living here, we are working here, we are paying taxes. We are enjoying life in Japan.”

Mroczek said he knew of Japanese people born and living abroad who are allowed to return here, while foreigners born in Japan are barred from crossing borders.

“I am beyond disappointed,” he said.

Business leaders say they understand that Japan wants to keep the virus out, with infections and deaths here a fraction of those seen in Europe and the United States. But they don’t understand why a system of testing and quarantining returning Japanese nationals can’t also be extended to foreigners living in the country.

“It’s damaged [Japan’s brand] with those people who should have been its strongest supporters,” said Kopp. “People who have invested in learning the Japanese language, built their lives in Japan, who are contributing to Japanese society. Those are people who as a government it isn’t wise to alienate.”

They include Alyne Delaney, an associate professor in cultural and environmental anthropology at Tohoku University who has been stranded in Denmark since a work trip in March.

She draws a distinction between the “very disappointing” attitude of the Japanese government and that of the people of Japan “who I love and interact with.”

Many have apartments in Japan they are still paying rent on, and bills to pay.

Lee-Ann Haslam, a lecturer and artist, has been left to live on her savings, stranded at her mother’s home in Jamaica and unable to supply clients with her glass work.

“It feels like Japan doesn’t have our back,” she said, “like we are persona non grata.”

Julie Sergent, 29, works as a consultant for Japan’s hospitality industry. When her father died in France on April 27, the entire world was under restrictions, and she couldn’t make it back for his funeral.

Since then, she has applied several times for permission to return to France to grieve for him, under a clause that allowed for exceptions to the ban for “humanitarian reasons.” The stress has had a serious impact on her mental health and ability to work, she said.

On Tuesday, she was told a flat “no” to her latest appeal, on the grounds that the funeral had already taken place.

“All I wanted was to see his tomb and bring flowers to my dad. But it sounds like it won’t be happening,” she said. “I consider Japan like my home, so not being able to return home if I leave is a horrible feeling to have.”