Last year, 5,000 people applied for refugee status in Japan. 11 were accepted.
This past March, the Economist ran a headline, “No entry: As the world’s refugee problem grows, Japan pulls up the drawbridge.” The article included an image of the red circle (the sun) that is the flag symbol of Japan with a white bar through it, the symbol for “Do Not Enter” signs in Europe. This month The Washington Post weighed in with an article headlined, “As Europe makes room for refugees, some in Japan ask why not us?”
Japan is a strong target for refugee criticism because of its modest engagement in social media and global communications. Typically, it doesn’t proactively make its case to the world, largely allowing the international press and the Twitterverse to frame its issues for it.
The Washington Post article, comparing the refugee response of Europe with Japan’s closed doors, quotes heavily from Twitter messages that argue for opening the doors to refugees in Japan, including @robotopia, who wrote, “It’s insane that Japan, which has enough abandoned homes to house all Syrian #refugees TWICE over, took in only 11 asylum seekers in 2014.” The comment sparked a debate, including from me (@drpersuasion) about the feasibility to open abandoned houses in rural areas of Japan to refugees from Syria. GoodandbadJapan responded, “but they don’t speak Japanese and might put the rubbish out on the wrong day.”
Accepting refugees to Japan is not unprecedented, just very limited. Between 1978 and 2005, Japan accepted over 11,000 Indo-Chinese refugees fleeing the Vietnam conflict. Japan was the first Asian country in 2010 to participate in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ resettlement program, a pilot program to bring 90 Myanmar refugees from Thailand over the course of three years. Other than Myanmar and the Indo-Chinese, the Japanese government doesn’t have much experience in targeting a specific group for refugees to come to Japan, especially from a vastly different culture. Japan recognized 577 refugees from 1982 to 2010 under the 1981 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1982 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Where Japan shines is in providing assistance as a leading humanitarian nation. It is a top official development assistance (ODA) country, just below the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. International aid ostensibly greatly improves the lives of refugees. But because Japan is not a top host nation for refugees, it is vulnerable to critical global media stories singling it out as a rich country that takes in the least refugees. In contrast, Germany is celebrated for opening arms wide to take in up to half a million refugees. Germany may be facing incredible burdens from this population infusion, but its liberal refugee policy blowback may take years.
Germany was the Cinderella of the refugee crisis and Japan the Evil Stepmother before Abe’s address to the United Nations on Sept. 29. Abe announced a tripling of the budget from last year to $810 million in assistance to refugees and internally displaced people in Syria and Iraq. He also announced $750 million “to help build peace and fully ensure this peace across the Middle East and Africa.” But that is what Japan is doing “over there” and Japan may still be subjected to criticism for not taking in the most vulnerable publics fleeing conflict.
The refugee criticism of Japan risked threatening an image that Japanese leaders have attempted to cultivate in developing nation brand Japan as a compassionate leader in the world. One of Japan’s most honored citizens, Madame Sadako Ogata, high commissioner of the U.N.’s refugee agency for a decade (1991-2000), remains one of the country’s most honored citizens. At age 88, she remains president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a Tokyo-based developmental organization that works to alleviate poverty, as one mission.
The focus on Syria may also carry with it a bitter memory for many Japanese. This past January, Abe announced a $100 million donation to help the countries of the Middle East fighting Islamic State inside their borders. Within a few days, Muslim militants with IS beheaded Kenji Goto, a journalist, and Haruna Yukawa, the Japanese hostage that Goto had gone to Syria to attempt to rescue.
Abe’s tripling of humanitarian assistance for refugees and internally displaced people in the Middle East is notable. But there is a more recent bitter memory that remains, a population of internally displeased people who were opposed to the controversial security legislation passed just after midnight on Sept. 19. Abe’s U.N. speech made passing reference to the collective self-defense measures that were defined by a brawl in the Diet and hundreds of thousands who took to the streets. The prime minister positively framed the security summer of discontent like a “Wish you were here” picture postcard.
Japan’s security changes spell the end of a pacifist Constitution and Abe’s glossing over of this reality in his U.N. speech is as telling as his positive public relations surrounding doing more for the most vulnerable publics in Syria and Iraq.
Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies where she will begin teaching in 2016.