Invisible Refugees: Why Does Japan Give Them the Cold Shoulder?

Invisible Refugees: Why Does Japan Give Them the Cold Shoulder?

By: Yumeka Kawahara

The story of the death of a Sri Lankan woman at the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau (the Bureau) dominated the headlines in the Japanese media in 2021. The woman had been detained by the Japanese Government at the Bureau for overstaying her visa since the summer of 2020. While the Bureau released a final report on this case in the summer of 2021, significant details remain undisclosed. Moreover, her family members and their lawyer—the only people who were allowed to watch the footage of her in the bureau—testified to the  brutal and irresponsible treatment by the Bureau which included baring her access to appropriate medical care despite her ill health.

Unfortunately, she is not the first person to be mistreated by the Bureau. In fact, since 2007, seventeen detainees have died—five of whom committed suicide. The wide media coverage on this issue have brought the Bureau’s human rights violations against non-citizens to light throughout Japan.

Given this increased awareness, where is the social pressure on the Japanese Government to protect migrant rights? Why aren’t there any social movements focused on the issue, like those that sprang up against the detention of immigrant children in the United States during the Trump Administration? As a Japanese citizen, I would like to address this question by looking first into how Japanese people understand human rights and then into the structure of Japanese society.

Human Rights: West vs. Japan

The Japanese Constitution recognizes that human rights are natural rights that everyone enjoys. This notion originates from the West, and the Allied powers established the Constitution based on this concept after World War II as part of their mission to democratize Japan. Before WWII, rights of citizens were given by the Emperor in Imperial Japan, who denied the concept of natural rights and considered Japanese people to be his subjects. While the notion of natural rights arrived in Japan in the 19th century, this new Western concept did not fit into Japanese society due to Confucianism and the long-standing feudalism from the Kamakura Period to the Edo Period (from end of 12th century to 1867). Japanese people were still bound to this system in which rights were guaranteed by the upper class. 

While the Allied powers replaced this feudalistic view through the Constitution of 1947, it is not easy for Japanese to completely eliminate the philosophy deeply entrenched in our society. An illustration of this is the Liberal Democratic Party’s efforts to amend the Constitution lately in order to eliminate the notion of natural rights, and the lack of response from most Japanese people. 

While the national constitution guarantees natural rights, our society still acts as if rights were given by the Government, and this is why the Japanese do not speak up even when the Government crosses the line and infringes upon our rights. In short, “in the West, governments are servants of citizens, but in Japan, citizens are the slaves of the Government.” It is not surprising that the Japanese do not react despite knowing the injustices faced by the detainees in the Bureau.

Collectivism: Us vs. Them

Another reason for the lack of societal response to the deaths of detainees is the exclusiveness of Japanese society stemming from a collective social structure. Japanese society is more collective compared to that of the West broadly and embraces values and social norms such as “harmony should be maintained” and “in-group (us, Japanese) versus out-group (them, noncitizens).” With foreigners consisting only around 2% of the total population, Japanese people tend to think of them as “outsiders” and exclude them from society. This is clear from the fact that one-third of foreigners have experienced racist remarks or attitudes from Japanese, and two-third of Japanese people still believe that foreigners disrupt and threaten the cohesion and security of the society.

This “othering” phenomenon leads to an apathetic or sometimes offensive attitude towards foreigners, and therefore migrants who are suffering due to the detention practices enacted by the Bureau, do not move Japanese people to stand up for migrants because they do not see the problem as “their issue.”

What Can Be Done

Internal Solution

How can the Japanese society tackle the indifference and protect the rights of these detainees? Education and training programs focusing on interculturalism are necessary to address the “othering” attitude, considering that the degree of collectivism/individualism of society can change depending on the perception of people. The Japanese do not interact frequently with people of other cultures in schools or offices, and therefore the opportunity to understand those who are different is lacking. Through education and training that bring Japanese people and other cultures together, the citizens can begin to build the foundation for an intercultural society that does not ignore problems that foreigners are facing. 

External Solution

What about the understanding of human rights? Education has limits here. Japanese students learn and understand what natural rights are in the classroom setting, but they are unconsciously influenced by the traditional Japanese understanding of human rights. One of the possible solutions for the policy improvement is international pressure. Considering that Japanese people rarely speak out about various human rights violations happening within their own borders, and there is little pressure on the Government to deal with this particular issue, one of the ways to incentivize the Government is to put pressure on Japan from the outside. Human rights violations become more costly in the eyes of the Japanese government when receiving international criticism, as human rights are one of the axes of the U.S.-led international order, from which Japan has benefited. Moreover, by deteriorating its reputation in the international arena, Japan can additionally lose its soft power. Therefore, international criticism can push the Government to improve the policy to maintain its international reputation.

Public education and, albeit less desirable, external pressure applied to the Japanese Government, are key factors for policy improvement. Let’s build a society that is aware of the suffering of its noncitizens and willing to act to change that reality. 

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