JT/Kyodo: Record high applicants for J refugee status. Why media fixation on refugees? Because they are a bellwether of Japan’s “legitimacy as a competent, advanced, Western democracy”


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Hi Blog.  Making national news whenever statistics come out is how Japan deals with (i.e., mostly rejects) refugees. I was always curious about why refugee numbers have always been considered newsworthy (when there are many other significant NJ-related statistics that merit more fanfare but don’t, such as the number of “Newcomers” with Permanent Residency overtaking the “Oldcomer” Zainichis with Special Permanent Residency in 2007, representing a sea change in the composition of permanent immigrant NJs in Japan).  But then I found something in an academic writing that put things in perspective:  Acceptance of refugees are one bellwether of Japan’s acceptance of international norms, as part of its “greater role in international cooperation” and an attempt “to increase its legitimacy as a competent, advanced Western democracy”.  First the most recent news article, then the academic article to put it in perspective:


2012 saw record-high 2,545 people apply for refugee status in Japan
The Japan Times/KYODO
MAR 20, 2013, courtesy of JK

A record 2,545 foreigners applied for refugee status in Japan in 2012, the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau said Tuesday.

While the figure marked an increase of 678 compared with the previous year, there was a drop in the number of those who were actually granted refugee status, the bureau said.

In 2011, there were 21 foreigners recognized as refugees, but for 2012, the number fell to 18.

Among those who applied, Turkish nationals constituted the largest group, with 423, followed by 368 from Myanmar, 320 from Nepal and 298 from Pakistan, the bureau said.

A bureau official could not provide the exact reason behind the rise in refugee applications.

Meanwhile, the number of foreigners who were denied refugee status but were allowed to stay in Japan on humanitarian grounds totaled 112, the bureau said.

Since Japan began its refugee recognition system in 1982, there have been 14,299 people who applied and 616 who were recognized as refugees.



Now read this excerpt from Kashiwazaki Chikako (Associate Professor of Sociology at Keio University). 2000. “Citizenship in Japan: Legal Practice and Contemporary Development.” In T. Alexander Aleinikoff, and Douglas Klusmeyer, eds., From Migrants to Citizens: Membership in a Changing World. Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pp. 448-50.  I retype in all paragraphs preceding the section on refugees to Japan, to give you the geopolitical context under which bureaucrats created refugee policy.



Since the mid-1970s, Japan has come into prominence in the international arena as a major player in the world economy.  Internationalization became a slogan for the new direction of the country, with demands from both within and abroad to open, to take a leadership role, and to assume international responsibility.  For the Japanese government, successful economic development provided the opportunity to assume a greater role in international cooperation and to increase its legitimacy as a competent, advanced Western democracy.  To do so would require accepting an emerging set of international legal norms, including those in the area of citizenship.

Among international legal norms, the most relevant to the recent development of citizenship are the UN conventions on human rights and the rights of migrant workers and noncitizen residents.  In Western Europe, international conventions on human rights have provided legal and normative underpinnings to the extension of partial citizenship rights to noncitizen residents.  The goal of economic integration through free movement of people within the common market has also facilitated legislation regarding the legal rights and protection of migrants.

Another major impetus for changing laws regarding citizenship and nationality is the principle of gender equality.  The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women required that signatory countries accord the same rights to women as they do to men in regard to their children’s nationality.  Consequently, a number of countries that had a patrilineal jus sanguinis system shifted to the bilineal system where children obtain both their father’s and mother’s nationality.

In the absence of an equivalence in European integration, the role and the extent of international coordination are expected to be different for the Japanese case.  Nevertheless, Japan has also been under the constraints of international legal norms.  Admission of Indochinese refugees and the adoption of bilineal jus sanguinis [in 1984] are two examples that show the impact of international factors on nationality and citizenship regulations.

The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 generated refugees from Indochina.  In the same year, the G7 Summit meeting was established. As the only Asian country admitted to membership in the G7 Summit, Japan was obliged to take some steps to accommodate refugees.  In 1978, the Japanese government permitted the settlement of refugees within the set limit of the ceiling.  The initial quota was only 500 refugees, although it was gradually expanded to 10,000 by 1985.  At the end of 1997, 10,241 Indochina refugees had been accepted for settlement [Shutsunyuukoku Kanri 1998].

Although the number of refugees settled in Japan was small, their arrival had a strong impact on the social rights of resident aliens.  With the acceptance of refugees, the Japanese government was compelled to join relevant international conventions.  Japan acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural, Rights in 1979, and then ratified the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981.  Provisions in these conventions required that resident aliens be treated equally with the citizens of the country in the areas of social security and welfare.  Consequently, several legal changes removed eligibility restrictions based on nationality in such areas as national pension and public housing.  Furthermore, the creation of a new residential status for refugees in 1981 contributed to improvement in the legal status of preexisting long-term resident aliens.



COMMENT:  So you see, Japan basically only acceded to these international norms and agreements as a vanity project — a matter of “not looking like an outlier” in the international community.  Not because policymakers had any good-faith interest in helping NJ or outsiders in need come to Japan and settle.  That’s why we see honne hiccoughs from time to time (like the one in 2010 when a 78-year-old Zainichi granny was denied social welfare by Oita Prefectural Government — where a court ruled that “Welfare payments to non-citizens would be a form of charity“.  So much for those international treaties guaranteeing equal treatment being respected by Japan’s judiciary!).  We’ve also seen how Japan simply will not pass a law against racial discrimination (despite signing another international agreement, the UN CERD, in 1995) — and will in fact counteract anyone who does.  So in this context, Kyodo’s reporting that “since Japan began its refugee recognition system in 1982, there have been 14,299 people who applied and 616 who were recognized as refugees,” should come as no surprise.  The GOJ has no intention of keeping its international treaty promises.  They are merely national self-esteem boosters, not real guidelines or goals.  Arudou Debito

8 comments on “JT/Kyodo: Record high applicants for J refugee status. Why media fixation on refugees? Because they are a bellwether of Japan’s “legitimacy as a competent, advanced, Western democracy”

  • Japan – population 125,000,000 refugees accepted per year (approx 20)
    Australia – population 21,000,000 refugees accepted per year (approx 13,000)

    — Let’s have links to sources just for good housekeeping.

  • I agree with Debito and this article. This whole thing about allowing NJ in whether as an exchange student, temporary worker, an immigrant or refugee, is mainly just a superficial dressing to make Japan look like a new century nation. It is no wonder Japanese do not want NJ to know too much about Japan, advanced Japanese and the inner workings of Japanese society.

    The apologists who think that “oooh look Japan is so moving into the the future! They are allowing in NJ refugees!” are either apologists in denial or apologists who are kept in the dark about things.

    If not for the sake of having a “modern globalized nation” image just to be part of the “modern nations” team, I think Japan would want to go back to the Edo-era style of NJ treatment if not early Meiji-era where NJ are heavily restricted where they can go and how much they can interact with the locals.

    I remember talking to several different and unrelated Japanese in regards to what they want in the future of Japan. Strangely they all gave me remarkably similar answers about wanting a return to Edo-era with a mix of Meiji-era. Some of them even want NJ interaction with Japanese be restricted and even enforced bylaw.

    Also with heated territorial disputes, rising nationalism and hatred of NJ reaching potentially dangerous levels, I don’t think Japan is a good place to be a refugee in at this time especially with that pro-genocide anti-Korean demonstration the J-Nationalists where doing a few weeks back.

    Lastly, I am not sure if Japan is really interested in bragging about its refugee program. Besides wasn’t there some hardline folks in the GOJ who wants to end the refugee program altogether?

  • It helps to hide news like this:

    “Japan: The worst developed country for mothers?..”

    “..Japanese women are more likely to have a university degree than men, and the number of women in employment has been rising steadily for 10 years – but, for a range of reasons, a woman who has had children still has a hard time getting a good job…”

  • Also understand that allowing refugees to *come in* and allowing them to *prosper* are two different things. Even looking beyond the low numbers allowed to come in, how many of those can actually make a decent life for themselves here in Japan? What companies would even hire them, and for what kind of jobs? They would just get taken advantage of, discriminated against, and driven to the lowest social-economic rung of society. I’ve worked for several Japanese companies, and even as an educated Westerner I’m not able to climb the corporate ladder. How would someone from say, Myanmar with no Japanese or English ability be able to? There’s simply no effective support system in place for those people. Sure if they worked hard and learned Japanese they might be given a bottom position in some company, but have you ever seen anyone like that with a highly-respectable position in Japan? Have you ever seen a Vietnamese refugee become a medical doctor in Japan? Now contrast that with a country like the US where it happens all the time. Japan just doesn’t get it. They look at refugees as something dirty to be swept under the rug, even if allowed to come here. For example, I went to the Vietnamese festival in Tokyo a few months ago, expecting to see lots of Vietnamese. Instead, I saw lots of… Japanese.. eating Vietnamese food. The few Vietnamese who were there were hidden in the back of the booths doing the cooking. All the people up front talking to customers and such were Japanese. Strange. Were they not even worthy of showing their faces and speaking at their own Vietnamese festival??

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ John K #3

    Good article, thanks!

    @ Debitozoku

    Someone (I forget who, maybe Eric C- where for art thou?) posted here a long time ago, that the Japanese have a national obsession with perceived international image. I would go a step further. I would say that Japan has an addicts craving for international recognition. I would contest that this is just one side of a coin (along with the urge to restore ‘Japanese pride’ by intimidating the neighbors with ‘Japanese power’) of the same coin of cognitive dissonance.

    The Japanese want international acceptance and recognition (from the era of the Great Powers to this day), but due to the ‘myths of Japanese uniqueness’ still reject western social values and would prefer to dominate on the international scene. It is the inability to reconcile these 2 contrasting view points that leads to Japan entering international agreements, and then doing everything it can to see that as little implementation as possible takes place.

    Cognitive dissonance is the root of so many of Japans problems.

  • Kaerimashita says:

    @John K #3

    The apologist crew on Reddit are having a hissy fit over that article.

    Regarding the first comment, I’ll help with the sources:
    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/03/20/national/2012-saw-record-high-2545-people-apply-for-refugee-status-in-japan/#.UUyT7Fugk28 (2011 – Japan recognized 21 foreigners as refugees, 2012 – 18 foreigners recognized)

    http://www.dw.de/australia-comes-under-fire-for-refugee-policy/a-16439189 (Australia – 13,000-20,000)

  • Same old “wanting to have a cake and eat it”.

    This is not much different from the regular Japanese policy of bringing in foreign scholars to “develop new ideas” and “internationalize universities” and forcing them to be quiet and simply conform to the “Japanese way”.

  • JDG#5

    Interesting take. I’ve always advocated that Japan/ese is/are like the old quantum physics conundrum. In that to observe a particle it becomes altered by the very action of “viewing” it. Thus how does one “measure it”.

    The Japanese, they love to view what the “outside” world is doing, but like quantum physics in doing so, one interacts and thus causes a change. Yet that is an anathema for Japanese.

    To interact with the international community, any country not just Japan, will expose itself to criticism/comments of itself. And that’s the rub. Their reluctance to get fully on board with any global/international voice/community is that if they provide comments or suggestions, then it is only fair that others comment on Japanese affairs too. Which of course means Japan would have to justify their actions to others. Can’t have that can we..Japan is unique it is special.

    So despite being the now 3rd largest economy in the world, previously the 2nd for several decades and punching above its weight, owing to is geographical size, any “normal” country would wish to be on the global stage making/providing comments to help influence events in their favour or offer another voice/course to take. Yet Japan doesn’t because it knows it is a 2 way street.

    And you see this is typical behaviour of Japanese too. They don’t like to fully engage and take part in discussions, they like to “sit at the back and listen” nodding and giving the “so desu neh” supportive comments, but offer nothing in return. Since they all know, to offer comment exposes them to critiquing and questions of their comments or views which they do not wish to answer or justify.

    Thus no matter what occurs, Japan will remain “outside” of the globally community by choice and to the point of making sure it does, to ensure that the status quo does not change for the aforementioned reasons.


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