Research is not tourism: the long wait for Japan

So I have got some exciting personal news to share. I will soon be back to academic research and glaciology. I have got a job, a visa. I am eager and about to get back to work in a country that has been locked for months: Japan. No, I’m kidding. It’s a joke! I drafted this opening paragraph a few days ago, but it’s outdated now.

Note: if you read this story, please consider helping me to continue my research, and many others in similar situations, by signing this petition to the European Parliament calling to defend bilateral agreements with Japan.

Home with a view

In May 2021, I lived in a small studio facing east over the ever-changing Aegean Sea. Greece was slowly awakening from a long winter lock-down, and the first tourists coming back to the islands. The Cycladic house I had occupied for the past six months was both my home and my office. Restaurants were reopening, the sea had begun to warm, days without hot water were getting rare, and when the wind came down, one could make out the snow-capped mountains of Crete, a surreal strip of land floating some hundred kilometres in the distance.

I had spent the last few months doing a bit of glacier work again, writing Python code, applying to jobs, getting involved in proposals, and even putting together a short paper to improve my CV. This is when the news came. I had gotten a job in Japan, a pretty good job on top. The job was for nearly four years, a really long time by academic standards. Most importantly for me, I would work with colleagues I trusted. But there was a catch. Since the beginning of the covid pandemic, Japan had had one of the toughest border closures in the world. But with most western countries getting vaccinated and Europe reopening to tourism, it could not be long before Japan followed. Well, at least, this is what I thought.

My colleagues engaged the regular procedures for my immigration to Japan, and we set a start date for my work on August 1st, leaving ample time for the complicated paperwork and my return to France, where I would apply for a visa. I hurried to get a covid vaccine and certificate in Greece, quite an adventure on its own. Long story short, we had an engine failure just outside the harbour, but the village pope, also on his way to get jabbed, had blessed our fishing boat the previous day, so it all worked out very well in the end. Greece. The vaccine certificate would soon become my ticket to Japan. Well again, this is what I thought. Japan.

Then came the time to leave Anafi, the island I had been living on for seven months, and where I had begun to take root. But anyway, overnight ferries were now bringing hordes of summer vacationers to the island, while fast-foods, out-of-place souvenir shops, and foreign languages were popping up like exotic fruits in the usually quiet village streets. The tranquility of Anafi was beginning its own summer break. “Don’t worry”, I said when leaving my neighbours. “If Japan does not open after the Olympics, I’ll be back in September”. And I meant to. I had no idea what kind of emotional hell I was heading to.

Rush to a wall

Having received my two shots, I did not loose time and immediately bicycled back from Greece to France, using a long overnight ferry to minimize the distance. I travelled over a hundred kilometres per day, a really speedy pace for me, and took a single rest day in Florence. Every morning in the tent, as I had done now for over a month, I read The Mainichi, the English-language outlet for one of Japan’s major newspapers, hoping for changes on the border regulations.

In early July, I met my family in France, who in-between had received my Certificate of Eligibility (CoE), the document that I was to exchange for a visa some day. I was all set to move to Japan, now it was just to wait. And wait. And wait.

By mid-July, I had become firmly addicted to the news. I opened The Mainichi several times per day, mostly in a spontaneous uncontrolled manner. The focus was almost entirely on the upcoming summer Olympics. I learned much about Japanese politics, the multiple scandals, the government’s inflexibility. But for months I read nothing at all about the entry ban. Was no one interested? Slowly but surely, my image of Japan was being eroded, my mood and my motivations too. But it was summer, I enjoyed a few extra weeks with my family. No big deal. Yet.

The embassy in Paris recommended that I attempt a special procedure for holders of a “professor” CoE. I asked if the procedure was the one mentioned on their website, and was told it is something different. So my colleagues in Japan prepared an official letter detailing my planned activities at the university. The demand was rejected, citing the reasons mentioned on their website: this procedure was for teachers. With nearly all university teaching in Japan in Japanese, it must be rare that a foreign lecturer is expressively needed, I thought. A few weeks lost.

I did watch some of the Olympics. I stayed up late at night to see the marathoners running across the Hokkaido University campus in Sapporo. It was strange to see these places live on TV. I pointed a building to my uncle: “hey, this is where I am going to work.” And then thinking again, “I mean, maybe…”


With the summer over, and having visited nearly all my relatives, I moved to my parent’s house, resigned to wait some more. I made a schedule for myself, tried to take up some work, not much, just a couple of hours a day, and to prepare some alternative plans. I did manage to write a new job application, but everything took tremendous time. The problem was, my news addiction had become totally uncontrollable. With every email I received, every sentence I wrote back, every tiny decision about coding or research strategy, came an irresistible urge to check the news. There was no information, no timeline, so after all, the border could very well open anytime.

By then, I was a year and a half into unemployment. But somehow I continued to receive requests for unpaid work, eroding my self-esteem and the will to seek a real job in academia. In late September, I gave up on my schedule. I stopped answering messages from friends and nearly all but the most urgent emails. For the first time in many, many years, I installed a computer game on my laptop. I became addicted to the game. I read the news less. It felt good.

We were told Japan would reopen after the Olympics, and it did not. We were told Japan would reopen after the Paralympics, and it did not. We were told Japan would reopen after vaccination rates caught up with the West, and it did not. We were told Japan would reopen after the election. This is when, thanks to the business lobby and to “education is not tourism”, the topic, I mean us, 370000 researchers, workers, students, language teachers, separated couples and others, we finally came up in the news.

False hopes

In mid-September, DJ Zedd surprised everyone with a three-days quarantine, while thousand others, eager not to visit but to live in Japan, ready to test and quarantine for weeks, remained vaguely hoping to rebuild their lives and career, one day. As for my case, I am very lucky to have colleagues in Japan as stubborn as I am when it comes to their will to hire me. Around early October, they informed me they had established contacts in the ministries and were initiating a highly bureaucratic procedure to let me enter Japan as a “special case”, a kind of Olympic grade, rock-star DJ postdoc researcher. Yeah, that’s me! The new paperwork would take time, so they aimed for my travel on November 30th, arrival in Japan on December 1st, followed by a two-weeks quarantine in Tokyo before moving on to my workplace.

Meanwhile on November 5th, Japanese newspapers announced in great pump that Japan was reopening borders. Some 370000 news-addicted CoE holders probably simultaneously jumped in joy, only to a day later find out that “reopening” had a different meaning when it came from the mouth of Japanese politicians. Only a small percentage of those waiting became eligible to have their employers, schools or otherwise sponsors begin very complicated bureaucratic procedures, somewhat similar to the ones my colleagues had been working with for weeks. As a special DJ postdoc, I was not directly concerned with the news, but it felt just the same. We were being toyed. But I tried not to think too much about the bad news for everyone else and, not without a feeling of guilt, pursued my own privileged road to Japan, which was becoming promising.

I pledged to “not use public transport”, and to “avoid crowded places” for two weeks, only to find out I would hardly have a chance to do so as I would be locked in a hotel room anyways, my meals delivered in plastic boxes. The reduction of quarantine from 14 to 10 days for vaccinated travellers, once presented as a big step, also turned out to be impossible to achieve in practice. To Japanese immigration, my vaccine certificate has no value. I can only smile when thinking of my epic boat trip and administrative Odyssey in Greece. But none of that mattered. Even if I had been asked to spend several weeks in a cave, without sunlight, without internet and without cheese, I was ready, for then I could meet my colleagues, go back to work, receive a salary and live some kind of normal life.

On November 23rd, following mutual recognition from the Ministry of Education, The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Immigration Bureau, and the Cabinet Secretariat, that I was a very special case indeed, I travelled for the second time to Paris, and finally obtained my visa for Japan. While the sun set in the clear autumn sky, I climbed the stairs in front of the basilica on Montmartre, took a photo of my visa against the endless sea of blue-roofed Haussmannian buildings, and sent it to my employers, thanking them for all the hard work they had done for me, and the financial risks they were willing to take. They booked the flight, the quarantine, and the special airport transfer. I packed my bags, and passed the PCR test.

No conclusion

As always, the story ends as a Greek letter. This is becoming routine now, so I saw it coming. On November 29th, behaving much as a “special” person, I pressured an overworked staff at my local medical lab to obtained my negative PCR test result on time and in the paper format required by Japanese authorities, as opposed to the digital format used in Europe to allow for more and safer tests. Later in the afternoon, and thus late at night in Japan, a colleague was very sorry to inform that despite all our efforts it was decided I am not so special after all. As for all others, my entry was banned from November 30th, the exact day of my flight to Japan.

A year ago, I began working on a job application to do Arctic research in Japan. Today, I was finally planned to land in Tokyo. And once again I, and those who spent huge time and effort to try and hire me, get the carpet pulled under our feet, plunging us back into a pool of uncertainty. I am (was) a glaciologist in my thirties. I am somewhat known in my field, had my works presented in major newspaper and museums. More importantly, I have excellent support from well-informed colleagues trying to hire me in Japan. My thoughts go to all who have no such support or contact network, are plunged into even deeper uncertainty than I am, or have been waiting even much longer.

Japan continues to send a clear message that (climate) research, education, and international cooperation are no priorities. I want to continue and disagree, but a certain feeling this is getting too much, for my mental health, and out of respect for my colleagues’ time, is slowly surfacing.