The plan to accept Ukrainians fleeing the war was shocking to many. People wondered how the government could decide — seemingly overnight — to accept Ukrainians while continuing to reject others seeking protection. Some believed that the government would finally expand refugee protection and increase Japan’s dismal asylum recognition rates. Others saw it as a cynical move to rehabilitate Japan’s reputation after the March 2021 death of former asylum seeker Wishma Sandamali in a detention cell, despite her repeated pleas to be taken to a hospital.
The original policy on accepting Ukrainians was limited to those who have family members living legally in Japan. Initially, the government would not accept fleeing Ukrainians as refugees but was instead considering creating a special quasi-refugee status to regularise their stay. This plan has since been shelved. As of 26 October 2022, 2,057 Ukrainians have arrived in Japan and have been granted temporary permission to stay.
Japan ratified the Refugee Convention in 1982. Its refugee policy has become more humane and human rights-oriented since a critical mass of refugee advocacy organisations and refugee lawyers emerged in the early 2000s. Still, policies and programs are always limited in scope and limited in effectiveness.
These persistent limitations can be described as the ‘tyranny of small numbers’. The government’s focus on limiting the number of long-term sojourners, including refugees, severely limits the protection that is available to refugees, with an emphasis on controlling numbers seeming to dominate decision-making.
Activists often criticise Japan’s government for its small refugee intake. In 2019, Japan received 15,505 applications for recognition of refugee status and granted only 38. Another 38 applicants received humanitarian permission to stay, while 4421 cases were closed.
In 2017, during the Syrian refugee crisis, the Japanese government announced that they would accept a maximum of 150 young Syrians over the next five years under a new scholarship program that would essentially allow them to enter Japan as exchange students, not as refugees. In response to the post-Vietnam War refugee crisis in 1975, Japan initially agreed to accept 500 Vietnamese refugees, though this was incrementally increased to 11,000.
Since the early 2000s, Japanese non-government organisations have advocated for a comprehensive refugee policy that addresses refugee status determination and provides material support. While this goal has been elusive, the government’s decision to become the first Asian country to partner with the United Nations as a destination for refugee resettlement has expanded refugee protection. The resettlement program started as a three-year pilot program in 2010 and was made permanent in 2015.
Japan’s refugee resettlement program is the first of its kind in Asia. The government deserves recognition for formalising a program to resettle refugees from overseas camps. But despite the promise, the program has been a disappointment. Though it has allowed resettlement and the chance to build a stable life for those who have gone to Japan on the program, it has not met its potential or the expectations of refugee rights advocates. The program falls short because, like all Japanese government attempts to offer refugees protection, it is limited and exclusive.
The pilot resettlement program focussed on resettling people from only one camp along the Thailand–Myanmar border, Mae La, effectively limiting it to ethnic Karen. The possible applicant pool was further narrowed by restrictions such as preference for nuclear families with young children and prohibitions on sponsoring other family members such as adult children or grandparents after resettlement.
Problems on the ground further affected the resettlement program after refugees arrived in Japan. These issues with the program resulted in there being no applicants for resettlement in 2012, the third year of the program — people chose to stay in the camp instead of settling in Japan.
Like all countries, Japan’s decisions on refugee intake are complex. Often, analyses that try to account for these decisions investigate the role of race, ethnicity, or country of origin. Yet the tyranny of small numbers reflects an attempt to control and Japan’s refugee decisions must be understood in this broader framework.
Petrice R Flowers is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she teaches courses in international relations and Japanese politics.