Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe finally answered critics of his government's asylum policies this week with a short blast of realpolitik: Japan must come first. "Before accepting immigrants or refugees, we need to have more activities by women, elderly people – and we must raise our birth rate," he said.
The reply, at the UN headquarters in New York, struck some as odd, because it seemed to conflate Japan's plummeting population with the refugee crisis. "It showed that Abe doesn't understand anything about Europe's refugee problem," says Shogo Watanabe, an immigration lawyer. "It was shameful."
Nine million people have fled their homes in
since war erupted in 2011. Millions have fanned out across Europe and the rest of the world in search of better lives. But they have found the drawbridge in Japan raised. The world’s third-largest economy has granted asylum to a single Syrian family.
That’s consistent with Japan’s record on sheltering people fleeing from conflict, says Watanabe. In the decade up to 2013, Japan gave asylum to just over 300 refugees. Last year, the number fell to 11.
That’s despite the fact that applications are at their highest since Japan signed the 1981 UN Convention for Refugees.
Once they land at Narita Airport, the experience of asylum seekers can be grim. While their claims are processed, some are locked up for months or more. Families are left to fend for themselves. Immigration officials give the impression that they want refugees to leave, says Gloria Okafor Ifeoma, a Nigerian who arrived in Tokyo in 2007, requesting asylum.
Such treatment has not gone unnoticed. Japan's poor handling of refugees suggests the country is shifting away from international human rights standards, said Amnesty International recently.
On a visit to Tokyo last year, Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said Japan's system was too rigid and restrictive.
This has become increasingly clear as the human spillover from global strife grows, say critics. Hiroshi Miyauchi, another immigration lawyer, says Japan's "appalling" rejection of nearly all 61 applications by Syrian refugees who have arrived since 2011 shows that the government is well out of step with international norms.
Japan otherwise holds its own on the international stage. It is the second-largest financial contributor to the UNHCR. At the UN this week, Abe pledged $810 million (€718 million) to alleviate the immediate plight of refugees from Iraq and Syria. But campaigners want the government to do more than simply write cheques, says Eri Ishikawa, chairwoman of the Japan Association of Refugees, a non-profit organisation.
She says the nation’s immigration officers are overworked and trained to narrowly focus on political refugees, not those displaced by war. Japan also has a primitive system for gathering information from the refugees’ countries of origin. Many claimants are falling through the cracks and being needlessly rejected, she says.
Pressure for change has been building. Last year, the number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people worldwide topped 50 million people for the first time since the second World War, according to UNHCR. Guterres is among those who want Japan and the richer countries to allow more of these people in.
Abe’s comments, then, have stunned campaigners who expected a loosening of the rules. Instead, the prime minister honed in on Japan’s own demographic challenges. The population fell by a record 268,000 people last year.
Abe’s government has floated the idea of allowing more immigrants to fill the gap – with little so far to show for it.
Still, the justice ministry is mulling accepting “dozens” more Syrian students, according to reports in the Japanese media. And immigration bureaucrats are reviewing the country’s asylum system. The result could be a more transparent review system for the desperate human flotsam that washes up on Japan’s shores.
Or not: Mieko Ishikawa, director of Forum for Refugees Japan, a network of associations, believes it could actually make things worse. Immigration officials might be given even more power to weed out “abusers” from the system. Japan, it seems, is willing to help out refugees, as long as it doesn’t have to live with them.