Japan has often been criticized for closing its doors to asylum seekers. Following the high-profile incident in May at the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang, China, in which Japanese officials let Chinese police take a family of North Korean asylum seekers out of the compound, the government has tried to reform its refugee-recognition system. But little attention is paid to the problems many of the Indochinese boat people who settled in Japan over a decade ago still face. This is the first of four parts on the hardships confronting long-term settlers, their offspring and today’s asylum seekers.

In July, the Tokyo District Court sentenced a 34-year-old Vietnamese man to 20 years in prison for fatally stabbing two Japanese homeless men in Tokyo last year.

Vu Van Hoa was one of thousands of boat people who crossed the East China Sea and landed in Japan in 1989. But 12 years after his dangerous ocean voyage, he was jobless, with a criminal record and living on a Tokyo street.

Since 1979, Japan has taken in boat people from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These refugees were seeking to escape persecution, and economic and other hardships resulting in part from upheaval in their homelands.

The number of such settlers and their extended families exceeded 10,000 by the mid-1990s and increases each year as relatives come to Japan to reunite with their families.

While some have achieved remarkable success here in the past two decades in academia, medicine and business, many others still face difficulties in adapting to their adopted home.

Hoa was with a boatload of other Vietnamese adrift in the East China Sea when they were rescued by a freighter. He was taken to an immigration shelter in Omura, Nagasaki Prefecture.

Hoa had originally hoped to go to Canada, according to his lawyer.

After gaining residential status in Japan, he held various jobs, including as a factory worker in the Kanto region.

In 1997, Hoa was taken into custody twice for illegally manipulating pachinko machines. He became homeless after serving time in prison on a theft charge.

As a foreigner with a criminal record, and amid the protracted economic slump, he couldn’t find steady work.

He started living near the tent of a street person in the Nihonbashi district near JR Tokyo Station several months before the slayings, the court said.

The 49-year-old Japanese homeless man often offered Hoa odd jobs as well as drinks, although he also bossed the Vietnamese around, it said.

On the night of July 7, 2001, Hoa and the Japanese man fought after Hoa refused persistent invitations for drinks.

When the man pulled out a kitchen knife, Hoa fought back with his own knife and stabbed him three times, then stabbed a 32-year-old man who attacked him with a golf club, according to the court.

“The accused had never committed a violent act in the past,” said Yoshio Taniguchi, Hoa’s government-appointed lawyer. “He was not a bad guy by nature.”

During the trial, however, Hoa apparently failed to make a good impression on the judges. Instead of showing the requisite remorse, he repeatedly said he was not the one to blame.

“He seemed to have the attitude that, as a refugee, he won’t back down to anyone bullying or looking down on him,” Taniguchi recalled.

Immediately after he was sentenced, Hoa declared that he would not appeal. But prosecutors, who had sought a life term, filed an appeal with the Tokyo High Court.

Initial startup support

The government has provided Indochinese arrivals with relatively hospitable support, offering them a six-month resettlement training program, featuring language education and employment assistance.

Partly due to criticism that such institutional support excludes settlers from other countries, the Cabinet in August moved to extend the same level of benefits to all refugee applicants as part of government efforts to reform its policy.

After completing the settlement program, however, participants are expected to support themselves, competing with Japanese in an increasingly tough job market.

Workers at the government-sponsored Refugee Assistance Headquarters, or RHQ, said they knew at least a few boat people from Indochina who had become homeless and, on top of that, alcoholic.

They are often excluded from public shelters for the homeless and alcoholics, partly because of poor Japanese-language skills that make it difficult for them to work with others in groups, the RHQ workers said.

Foreigners with poor communications skills also tend to be rejected by day-laborer communities in flophouse districts.

Lonely settlers facing such a severe environment suffer mental problems, experts warn, stressing the importance of psychological support.

“Many of them feel a great deal of anxiety over their future, having little hope for what lies ahead,” a senior RHQ official said.

Especially in a country with a monolithic culture like Japan, he said, settlers feel a great deal of pressure to assimilate.

“I guess it would be much easier for them if we accepted more refugees so they could form ethnic communities in Japan and live without having to perfect their language skills.”

Group home approach

At Akatsuki no Mura (the Village of Dawn) in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, several Vietnamese suffering from mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and depression, live together with the support of volunteer workers.

The group home is a rare oasis providing institutional support for refugees who face serious obstacles to achieving independent lives.

The Rev. Yoshiya Ishikawa, a Catholic priest who operates the facility, said some settlers, facing isolation in their communities, come to feel they are neither allowed to live in Japan nor go back to Vietnam.

“What I fear most is suicides,” he said, adding that three Vietnamese at the facility have killed themselves.

One of them torched himself in his room, which also caught fire. Another man, in his 30s, recently leaped from the top of some stairs in the complex and broke his hip.

“I don’t think the government gave enough consideration to the possible mental problems refugees may face at the time the state decided to accept them,” Ishikawa said.

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