Just 410 — the number of refugees accepted by Japan since 1982 — says a lot about government policy toward those who flee political persecution in their home countries. They wouldn’t fill more than a few cars on a rush-hour commuter train!
Only 10 percent of those who seek asylum are granted refugee status, and that ignores the many potential applicants turned away at ports of entry and on the high seas based on an agreement between the Japanese and Chinese governments.
Eri Ishikawa, of the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), one of the leading nonprofit organizations working in the field, compares recognition to winning the lottery, and explains that the Immigration Bureau focuses on weeding out alleged “liars” among the applicants. Only 34 were recognized in 2006, 28 of whom were from Myanmar. Most asylum- seekers and recognized refugees in recent years have come from Myanmar.
Hisao Tanabe, a producer at national broadcaster NHK and a volunteer translator, believes this favorable treatment is because of the positive image of Burmese in Japan and sympathy for the difficulties they face under a very repressive government. World War II veterans fondly recall their treatment by Burmese, and Aung San Suu Kyi is a popular icon for democracy and a poignant symbol of Burmese suffering under a brutal military junta.
In addition, Myanmar lacks influence in Japan and the embassy refrains from lobbying against refugee-status recognition — in sharp contrast to other governments.
Tin Win Akbar, 52, a Muslim from Mandalay, has fared relatively well in Japan’s refugee labyrinth, but not without hardship. Tin Win is a member of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, and fled to Japan to carry on his political work. His application for asylum was processed without undue difficulty and he was able to bring over his family.
He is grateful, but also thinks the Japanese government needs to do much more to live up its responsibilities under the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention and also provide far more resettlement assistance. When he was granted refugee status in 1999, reception programs were tailored for Indochinese refugees. He had to fight reluctant bureaucrats who eventually allowed him limited access to these programs. However, at every turn he was confronted with Kafkaesque decisions and Catch-22 rules. His frustration in dealing with bureaucrats is palpable.
Tin Win has a degree in economics and is fluent in five languages, yet these skills are seemingly not valued in Japan’s job market. He works in an auto-parts factory in Ota City, Gunma Prefecture, and commutes at weekends to Tokyo where he serves as president of the Federation of Workers’ Union of the Burmese Citizen (in Japan). This union provides counseling and has been effective in curbing employer abuses.
Tin Win says that Japanese NPOs have been helpful, but thinks they need to do more to empower the refugees by giving them the opportunity to take leadership positions.
His daughter, Haymar Tin Win, 22, is in her third year at Asia University in Tokyo, thanks to a full scholarship from the Inukai Foundation. She came to Japan as a teenager in 1999 with no preparation for her new life.
Haymar says it was surprising that Japanese students knew so little about the political situation in Myanmar and what a refugee is. However, she says that students do become interested and sympathetic once she explains more about her situation. She seems like any university student with a part-time job, but she also volunteers as a way of giving something back.
As a translator for Burmese asylum-seekers she has seen first hand the arrogance of immigration officials who assume refugee-status applicants are dissembling unless proved otherwise. She thinks the questioning is unduly harsh and provocative. Beyond treating applicants with dignity and more humanitarian concern, she thinks the government needs to develop its support infrastructure in terms of more language training, education counseling and assistance in finding employment. She and her father spoke highly of the language- training program operated by Refugee Headquarters (RHQ), a quasi-governmental NPO that helped develop and implement resettlement programs for Indochinese refugees.
Wary of officials
Greater support for refugee- related NPOs would also make a positive contribution to expanding services to people often wary of officials and their by-the-book approach to handling the complex problems of adjustment facing foreign families in Japan.
Haymar and her father agree that their positive experience as refugees in Japan has been despite government policies, and owes far more to serendipity, their own diligence and the humanitarian impulses of some Japanese they happened to meet.