A futsal tournament with teams made up of people seeking asylum in Japan was held Sunday in Chofu, western Tokyo, to commemorate World Refugee Day.
The event, titled “One Ball, No Border,” is the first sports event in Japan in which teams of refugee applicants openly participated for the honor of their ethnic identities.
Teams of Kurdish Turks, Myanmarese democracy activists, Afghans and Iranians competed with Japanese teams in the five-a-side soccer tournament in front of more than 100 spectators, including Takeshi Okada, a former manager of Japan’s national soccer team.
In the final match, the Kurdish team beat a team comprising Afghans and Iranians 2 to 1, winning a champion ball signed by Sadako Ogata, a former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“We wanted to win the game. We want to be (remembered as) the first champion of this tournament,” said Ramazan Kazankiran, a 20-year-old member of the Kurdish team.
He said he and his family arrived in Japan in December 2000 to apply for refugee status, but their application was rejected.
They have since sought court recognition as refugees but have been living without social aid or job prospects while facing the possibility of detention or deportation at any moment, he said.
“It was more than just a game. I have not had this much fun or sense of pride since I came to Japan,” said Kazankiran.
The event was organized by young officials of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, an affiliate of the Foreign Ministry. The officials said they wanted to hold an event that would help raise public understanding of Japan’s refugee issue “in the least political manner.”
Eiji Wakamatsu, one of the JICA employees who organized the tournament, said the refugee issue is highly political, but the problems confronting those who are seeking asylum in Japan is also rooted in public ignorance of refugee issues and prejudice against foreigners.
“By chasing a ball together under the sun, we can probably break through our psychological barrier,” Wakamatsu said. He said he and his colleagues plan to make the tournament an annual event to deepen public recognition of people seeking asylum in Japan, which accepts only around 10 refugees a year while rejecting hundreds of others.
Given their potential fate in Japan, even members of the victorious Kurdish team expressed bittersweet feelings. “I had great fun today, but am kind of feeling guilty, thinking about the fact that many of our compatriots are in years of detention,” said one of the members of the Kurdish team.
Okada, who currently heads the J. League-leading Yokohama F. Marinos, said he was surprised to learn recently that Japan not only rejects a majority of refugee applicants but also often keeps them in long-term detention.
“It seems wrong for Japan to accept foreigners (or not) only from the perspective of its own benefit,” he said.