A group of people confront flashes of light as they enter the arrival gate at an airport— their faces tell a mixture of emotions: relief, exhaustion, perhaps a bit of sadness… in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Japan made the decision to open its borders to welcome refugees from Ukraine. This welcoming attitude is unprecedented, as Japan has historically been hesitant to accept not just refugees, but immigrants as well. How and why did this shift in attitude come about? This article will consider the history of immigration policies in Japan, the observed current changes, as well as currently arising issues.
Ayumi Nagatomi '26
February 15, 2023
Japan's history of immigration and refugee policies can be traced back to the Russian Revolution of 1917. While Japan did not formally recognize the asylum seekers from Russia as refugees, many were still permitted to reside in Japan. Japan’s next major refugee issue was during World War Two, when many Jews were fleeing Germany to escape the Nazi Regime. Asylum seekers obtained transit visas from Sugihara Chiune, a Japanese diplomat. Although the Japanese government did not explicitly support Sugihara's actions, with his help, as many as 6000 individuals were able to flee to other European? countries for safety.
In 1951, the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted. The convention established a multilateral treaty that defines the term “refugee” and formalizes the rights of asylum seekers and the responsibilities of the states granting asylum. The core of the treaty stipulates that asylum seekers should not be sent back to their country of origin. In the same year, Japan enacted the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act (ICRRA), which specified immigration control policies along with the specific definition of refugees.
Japan’s first wave of asylum seekers after the establishment of the ICRRA were from the Indochina War in 1975. From 1978 to 2005, the Japanese government accepted a total of 11,319 people from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Following the influx of refugees, Japan signed the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Refugee Protocol, and revised the ICRRA in 1981. This became a turning point for Japan in the acceptance of refugees.
Recognition of immigrants in Japan is overseen by the Immigration Service Agency. The average refugee application process takes on average four years, and in some cases, it can take up to ten years. While waiting for their application decisions, refugees can receive funding from the government, but this process too, can take several months. In most circumstances, refugees are given work permits, but with many lacking proficient Japanese language skills, many are forced into low-paying part time work, sometimes in exploitative industries such as sex-work . Furthermore, if their petition is denied, asylum seekers may be put into detention centers and risk deportation.
Japan's immigration system has been criticized for its low refugee acceptance rate by many. In 2021, Japan accepted a total of 74 refugees, mostly coming from Myanmar, Turkey, and Cambodia. This was the highest number of acceptance since the new refugee policy was enacted in 1981. Despite having a jump from 21 acceptances in the previous year, the number remains significantly lower compared to other developed nations around the world.
In 2021, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s current and long-standing ruling party, proposed a bill to amend current immigration policy. One of the changes, which sought to limit the number of times people can request refugee status, has sparked fierce opposition from opposition parties and civil organizations, for the reason that amendment goes against the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits a country from returning asylum seekers to their country of origin. Despite the criticism, the government is re-submitting the bill to the parliament this year. The revised bill still contains the same clause of the previous revision bill on the limitation of the number of refugee status requests.
Japan's immigration detention centers and their conditions have also recently come under scrutiny. Applicants rejected from refugee status are held in these centers, if not deported immediately. The news of the death of a Sri Lankan woman (say her mane) in one of these center shas brought a public outcry to review the treatment of the detainees. Since 2007, 17 individuals have died in detention centers under mysterious circumstances. (Write about how they died, if it was foul play).
Opening of doors to Ukrainians
Although immigration policy had been strict, in 2022, a change in the policy was seen. Within a week after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Kishida made the decision to take in Ukrainian evacuees. As of October 19th, 2022, Japan has accepted 2035 individuals from Ukraine— a historical jump from the years before. Strict requirements, such as the need for a guarantor, were lifted. To support the evacuees from Ukraine, the government has also allotted 520 million yen as an emergency fund to accommodate housing and dining.
Changes in Japan's reaction to refugees may seem sudden at a first glance, but a closer examination indicates that Japan's choice is methodological. The reason behind the change in discourse could be explained by three main reasons. Firstly, Ukrainians are considered “evacuees,” different from refugees. Current law provides a narrow definition: recognizing only those who are individually targeted and persecuted. In this narrow definition, whether an individual belongs to a persecuted minority does not matter, and is one of the main factors that prevented many asylum seekers from obtaining the status.
It was only after setting a clearly different term from the conventional “refugees,” the Japanese government showed willingness to provide shelter. The term “evacuees” also entails the government's expectation that evacuees will eventually return home. Such expectation worked out well in this case, as many Ukrainians evacuees anticipate returning to Ukraine as soon as they have the chance. The mutual expectation decreased the expected burden Japan will have in supporting Ukrainians, as well as the expected impact Ukrainians will have on Japanese society.
Furthermore, Japan's acceptance of Ukrainian evacuees was not a conclusion reached independently— just like most issues, it was heavily influenced by the United States. With the international involvement of the Ukrainian war, especially the involvement by the United States, accepting the evacuees was one of the ways to show Japan's stance of support towards Ukraine. Furthermore, with sanctions imposed on Russia, Japan is dismissing an end to decades of territorial negotiations with Russia— a strong stance in the face of international attention. Prime Minister Kishida outlined his policy as “realism diplomacy for a new era,” showcasing support to U.S. and other alliging nations.
In the future
Japan has been praised internationally for its recent aid to the Ukrainian evacuees. However, the status of the immigration policy as a whole needs review. As the controversy of detention centers continues, the Japanese government has the responsibility of transparency of the state of the detention centers. Would the Japanese government extend its attitude, seen in the Ukrainian crisis, to individuals from other parts of the world is the question that must be answered soon.