Tsuyoshi Amemiya, 74, a retired Aoyama Gakuin University professor, recalls the day he got a lesson on the status of refugees in Japan — and how shocked he was by his own ignorance of the issue.
On his way to a dentist appointment in 2004, Amemiya came across some Kurdish asylum seekers handing out fliers near United Nations University in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.
The Kurds told him they had been involved in antigovernment activities in Turkey and had fled to Japan to seek political asylum, only to be rejected several times.
To gather public support to improve the treatment of asylum seekers, Erdal Dogan, along with a Kurdish friend and their families, had begun a sit-in three days earlier outside the UNU. The site was just across the street from where Amemiya had taught English for decades.
Amemiya said he was especially shocked because he had considered himself knowledgeable about refugee issues. Since the 1980s, he had even taken his students to the Philippines every year to visit Indochinese refugee camps and study poverty issues there.
“I was embarrassed for not knowing until then that there were people seeking political asylum in Japan,” Amemiya said.
Japan signed the 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981, and joined the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees the following year, officially claiming itself as a nation that supports refugees.
Despite that, the country is notable for the small number of refugees it recognizes. Between 1982 and 2004, only 330 of the 3,544 people who applied for refugee status were accepted.
Only 15 were given the status in 2004. No Kurd has ever been declared a refugee.
The Justice Ministry has repeatedly deflected criticism of its low rate of admission, arguing that applications are reviewed on a case-by-case basis according to the merits.
But because of the scant attention the issue has received, even Amemiya was unaware of the situation.
Looking back, the professor says it was this shock that led him to become deeply involved in the refugee issue.
“Ignorance is shameful, but I believe that it will change once you act. The most shameful thing is not acting at all,” he said.
The two Kurdish families had acted, carrying out the sit-in for 72 days and receiving a good deal of media attention. The protest ended when they were made to leave.
While Amemiya praised their desperate attempt, he felt it shouldn’t have been left up to the Kurds.
“It was actually Japanese people’s responsibility, because we put them in that situation,” he said. “It’s easy to criticize and put the blame on the government, but since we are the ones supporting the government, I believe it is our own problem.”
Talking to Dogan and other asylum seekers, Amemiya said he soon learned that the problem was not just that their repeated pleas for refugee status were denied.
They told him that even though they had escaped persecution in their homeland and sought humanitarian support here, their dignity was damaged again for being detained and treated like criminals, Amemiya said.
Believing he could help get their message out, Amemiya started off by inviting the Kurds to his English class to talk to the students about what they had gone through, both in their homeland and in Japan.
Later, Amemiya transcribed the speeches and published them along with the students’ responses.
Amemiya eventually interviewed more asylum seekers. Dogan and others had expressed concern that some people did not believe their stories, not just because their experiences were so outlandish but also because of their limited Japanese, Amemiya said.
“I realized that I needed to reveal the issue to society,” he said.
The idea of compiling a series of interviews seemed natural to Amemiya. Over the course of a decade and more, he and his students had interviewed several dozen Aoyama Gakuin alumni who were drafted during the war while attending school. The university did not have any information about this part of the school’s history, and Amemiya had been determined to bring it to light.
By the time he encountered the Kurdish families, Amemiya had published six volumes of interviews, running 4,000 pages.
Beginning in fall 2005, Amemiya interviewed more than a dozen asylum seekers, including the Kurds, as well as others from Myanmar and Iran. Dogan helped Amemiya as a go-between and translator.
Amemiya transcribed the interviews and compiled them in a book, along with pictures and other information about the asylum seekers.
In May 2006, Amemiya and Dogan’s efforts resulted in the book “Watashi no jinsei, kore nani?” (“What has become of my life?”), which Amemiya published at his own expense. The proceeds were donated to support the asylum seekers.
In the book, the asylum seekers talk about what drove them to act against their governments, and why they decided to come to Japan to seek help.
The displaced people also speak of the months of terrible treatment they received at the detention centers, and how that ran contrary to their expectations of Japan as a free and democratic country.
For example, the asylum seekers said they were placed in the same cell as accused felons. Some were separated from family members, while many claimed they were not treated properly, had inadequate translators during interviews with officials, and received bad food and medical treatment.
Those interviewed in the book unanimously expressed fear of being deported to their home countries.
Though they are not detained while a decision is made on their case, current regulations forbid asylum seekers from working or traveling without permission.
To get the word out to non-Japanese readers, Amemiya published an English translation of the book under the title “What Has Become of My Life?” last September. The phrase was spoken by one of the interviewees, according to Amemiya.
The number of people applying for asylum to Japan has continued to grow, reaching 816 in 2007.
Yet only 41 people were granted refugee status.
An estimated 1,450 applied for the status in 2008, according to data compiled by aid group Japan Association for Refugees. The government has yet to release an official figure for the number it has accepted.
In the meantime, Dogan and his family were accepted as refugees in Canada in 2007.
It troubles Amemiya that although many Japanese who have read his book express shock at what befalls the asylum seekers, few like him actually try to do something about it.
“I would really like to see more people acting to change the situation,” he said. “If peace, human rights and social justice are abused, people should stand up, speak up and act.”