Japan must learn to see refugees not as ‘useful’ subjects, but human beings

The country’s problematic asylum policy is rooted in the absence of public debate – forced migration is treated as an issue that happens ‘over there’.

Moé Suzuki
15 February 2017
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, 2016. Mcs1 Jay M. Chu Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, 2016. Mcs1 Jay M. Chu Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.When US president Donald Trump issued his executive order on 27 January, halting the admission of refugees for 120 days and banning the entry of nationals from seven Muslim countries, it sparked protests and boycotts across the country. A number of heads of states came forward to condemn the action, including the chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, and even the British prime minister Theresa May who initially refused to denounce the ban.

One of the notable exceptions was Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe who, when questioned on the subject in the National Diet on 30 January, answered: “I’m not in the position to comment, but the international community should cooperate in dealing with the issue of refugees”. The lacklustre statement was a stark reminder not only of Japan’s stance towards refugees (or absence of it), but also of the country’s peculiar sense of indifference and withdrawal from any and all issues purportedly requiring “international effort”.

We live in a world where forced migration has become a defining feature. The number of the forcibly displaced reached 6.53 million at the end of 2015: one in every 113 people is now a forced migrant. But Japan’s presence in the realm of human rights, particularly in relation to forced migration, is meagre. In 2016, Japan received 10,901 asylum applications. Only 28 of these were accepted — 97 were given permission to stay on “humanitarian grounds”. The country often attempts to compensate for its lack of action through financial contributions, as seen in Abe’s pledge to provide emergency aid worth 1.5 billion USD for refugees (announced at the UN General Assembly in September 2015); it was not too long ago that Japan was accused of “chequebook diplomacy” during the Gulf War. Even in the realm of immigration, Japan’s stance is mired in hypocrisy. For example, the Japanese government continues to insist that it is accepting “foreign workers”, not “immigrants”. It is adamant that accepting “foreign workers” does not constitute an immigration policy.

In May 2016, Abe announced that Japan would accept 150 Syrian refugees staying in Jordan and Lebanon as “exchange students” at Japanese universities over the following five years. The announcement was made strategically before the G7 Ise-Shima Summit in the same month, possibly to avoid criticism about Japan’s inaction in the face of the ‘refugee crisis’ facing Europe, which was set to dominate discussions. The programme announced by Abe aims to provide educational opportunities and help foster the younger generations who will shoulder the future reconstruction of Syria. Although these students are not being admitted as refugees, many saw the announcement as a welcoming move considering that Japan is notorious for being closed off to immigrants, let alone refugees. 

On 3 February, it was reported that the Japanese government now plans for those Syrian students and their families – a total of about 300 people – to resettle in Japan after they have finished their studies. This is certainly an encouraging step forward. However, there are several problems with this approach.

First, the whole programme is framed around the concept of nurturing jinzai, or human resources. Essentially, its framing is economic, focusing on the human resources required for the reconstruction of Syria, as well as development-focused, emphasising the crucial provision of educational opportunities lost to those fleeing the conflict. This is not a change in Japan’s interpretation of the Refugee Convention (1951), which is infamously narrow and strict. The Japanese government still fails to recognise that those fleeing the conflict in Syria are refugees, arguing that it is not one of the five grounds for persecution as outlined in the Convention. This is in fact incorrect, as pointed out by the UNHCR. Although Japan is giving the impression that it is taking steps to tackle the issue of forced migration, it is by no means a revision of its refugee policy.

Following this language of “human resources” and not human rights, the way in which the programme operates attaches a hierarchy of worthiness to human lives. The people who can apply to the programme are those already with a bachelor’s degree, between the ages of 22 and 39 on 1 September of the year they arrive in Japan, and with Syrian nationality. This poses the question: is it right that only those who fulfil these criteria are given the opportunity to study and settle in Japan as refugees? Using the language of human resources, isn’t Japan selecting only the ‘good refugees’?

The construction of a ‘good refugee’ necessarily entails the construction of a ‘bad refugee’. When UK street artist Banksy painted Steve Jobs (the son of a Syrian migrant) on a wall in the Calais refugee camp in 2015, to highlight the refugee crisis, the lurking question was: what about the refugees without ‘success stories’? Whilst clearly well-intentioned, this discourse overlooks the fact that refugees are just like us, with lives and experiences as wide-ranging and as complex as our own; not everyone is educated, not everyone is skilled, not everyone is hard-working, not everyone is talented. We are not obliged to provide safety and protection to refugees because they are ‘useful’ to society — we are obliged to provide them safety and protection because they are human beings fleeing death, injury, and violence, whose lives are worthy in themselves.

In the end, the fact that Japan has the room to be selective about who it accepts is testament to the fact that it is neither fully engaging with the issue of forced migration, nor does it fully understand the meaning of the Refugee Convention or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, under which every human being is given the right to seek asylum.

The main problem with Japan’s stance is rooted in the fact that there is virtually no public conversation around the issue of forced migration. The Japanese public’s response is indifferent – asylum policy has not been democratised. As professor Matthew Gibney argues, in liberal democratic states, the democratisation of asylum policy – asylum policy becoming an electoral issue with the engagement of the public, the media, and political parties – was sparked by the rising number of asylum seekers and the end of the Cold War. In Japan, this process is yet to take off. This allows the leader of the country to publicly state that he is not in the position to comment about the denial of the right to seek asylum; it allows the government to present a façade of progress when the status quo has in fact not been shaken; and it allows the government to create and perpetuate a hierarchy of worthiness with regards to human lives.

It should also be a sombre reminder that, whilst low- and middle-income countries continue to host the majority of the world’s forced migrants – approximately 86% of the world’s refugees under UNHCR’s mandate in 2015 – it was only when they began to reach the shores of Europe in the summer of 2015 that the term ‘refugee crisis’ started to dominate the media. This also contributes to Japan’s indifference: forced migration is treated as an issue that is happening over there. If Japan is to truly become part of the ‘international community’ it speaks of, democratisation of asylum policy should lead the way for a revision of its asylum policy. The Japanese government must learn to see refugees not as containers of economic usefulness, but as human beings with complex emotions, histories, and voices.

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