The following is the first of several (slightly modified) excerpts I’d like to share from my book Japan’s Open Future.
The Japanese government affirms that “refugee assistance is a bounden duty of a member of the international community,” and “one of the important pillars of Japan’s contribution to world peace and prosperity.” The country does send money to support refugees overseas—it gave $75 million in 2006 to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But the reality inside Japan is a far cry from its rhetoric and money sent abroad; any refugee who seeks a home in Japan is playing against terrible odds. Between 1981, when Japan ratified the UN Convention on Refugees, and 2002, Japan accepted just over 300 people as refugees. Put differently, all the refugees Japan admitted over a twenty-year period under the convention could fit onto a single airplane. Consider the difference: whereas in 2001 Japan admitted 26 refugees out of about a million asylumseekers worldwide, in that same year the US admitted more than 20,000, Germany admitted more than 17,000 and Britain admitted more than 14,000. Even though the US and Europe have tightened their rules since 9/11, they still admit far more refugees than Japan. As TAKIZAWA Saburo, the UNHCR Representative in Japan, commented in a 2008 speech, “The ratio of asylum seekers coming to Japan is only 0.0013%”; when they look to Japan as a potential home, he said, they see “walls” and “structural barriers.”
Drilling down from the aggregate numbers, what is it like for an individual asylum-seeker in Japan? Saul Takahashi, former Refugee Coordinator for Amnesty International in Japan, tells the story of meeting with Mohammed, a Nuba from Sudan, who had been tortured and whipped by the army. Takahashi tries to get Mohammed to understand what he is up against in hoping to become a refugee in Japan: “I tell him that it is practically impossible to get asylum in Japan … It will take years and during this time he will not get a work permit or any aid at all, [and] after they turn him down, he may be detained and deported.” In response, “Mohammed is silent for a minute. Then he says that he must try. He has no choice. He can’t go home. He has no place to go.”
Takahashi was Refugee Coordinator for Amnesty Japan for about three years, from 1992 to 1994, and later worked for the International Secretariat of Amnesty International in London following further studies at Oxford and Essex. In an interview, Takahashi offered his thoughts on the refugee situation in Japan. In his view, the small number of refugees admitted is not the worst of the problem. The bigger issue is the absence of a fair process: “the procedure in Japan to recognize refugees is hopelessly inadequate; it is arbitrary and secretive.” Japan, he says, needs to make fundamental changes so that people “at risk of human rights abuses are given protection.” For one thing, refugee applicants cannot apply for recognition at overseas consulates; they must first enter Japan— already a major barrier. Once on Japanese soil, the provision for legal aid is “hopelessly inadequate,” so most lawyers end up working on a pro bono basis. The interviewing officer gets to decide whether the refugee’s lawyer is allowed to attend the hearing, and in defense of this arbitrary approach, the government offers the inhumane argument that “since refugee recognition is an administrative procedure, there is no need for legal counsel.”
The appeals process, too, is bleak; appeals go to the same Ministry of Justice that made the initial decision, rather than a separate appellate body. And when a refugee application is rejected in the first instance, the officer need not provide any reasons—but without reasons for a decision, there is nothing for the claimant to rebut. In 2002, for example, not a single appeal in Japan was successful, in contrast to the US, where 32 percent were successful. Takahashi sees the high level of secrecy on refugee matters as the modus operandi for the bureaucracy generally, rather than a specific response to this issue. Or, as Takahashi asks, why should we expect the Japanese bureaucracy to be transparent and fair in its treatment of refugees when it is not so with its own people?
Social and political forces are pulling in opposite directions on the issue at the same time. Japan is now in a more complicated world, and many Japanese, as Takahashi notes, find convincing the “floodgates” argument—that Japan cannot admit too many refugees because of its proximity to China and North Korea, among other potentially unstable countries. Takahashi also concedes that there are many conservatives, led by the National Police Agency and the Ministry of Justice, who look on refugees, and for that matter any foreigners from developing countries, as “inherently contributing to crime,” and he admits that this contingent may, alas, be “closest to the mainstream attitude of Japanese society.” Nor is there much foreign pressure or gaiatsu applied to Japan on this score; “the sad truth is that I don’t think most countries really notice the refugee issue in Japan, or really care.”
Even so, support for change at the grassroots level is growing. Since she left her post as the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees, OGATA Sadako has become a more outspoken critic of the status quo, including what Takahashi calls some “pretty stinging statements about the fact that the government lets hundreds of times more people into the country on dodgy ‘entertainer’ visas” than it does refugees. Left-of-center liberals see the humanitarian dimension of the issue, while pragmatic Japanese think Japan should allow more refugees in to score political capital in the global arena. And refugee support organizations have grown in profile and number; from the mid ‘90s to about 2000, Amnesty International was the only NGO working for the protection of convention refugees in Japan. Now it has an important ally in the Japan Association for Refugees, and the Japan Bar Association has also become more active and outspoken on the issue. Lastly, domestic media are warming up to the call for change, especially in the Asahi and Mainichi newspapers.
For her part, OGATA Sadako asks whether Japan’s failure to abide by the spirit of the Refugee Convention reflects “prejudice and discrimination (against foreigners) based on the pure-ethnic-group myth.” As she exhorts her compatriots, “We need to overcome our insular spirit and xenophobia, and become able to relate to various problems in the world as our problems, not somebody else’s.”