National / Social Issues

‘Racist’ illustration of refugee girl sparks ire among Japan’s netizens

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

An online furor has broken out over a controversial illustration that depicts a refugee girl from Syria as a selfish freeloader, with some labeling the work, drawn by a conservative manga artist, as racist.

At the center of the controversy is an illustration depicting an unkempt girl with a wry smile. It is believed to be based on a real-life malnourished refugee who was forced to flee the war-torn country.

The background text in the illustration shows the girl’s inner thoughts: “I want to live a safe and clean life, have a gourmet meal, go out freely, wear pretty things and luxuriate. I want to live my life the way I want without a care in the world — all at the expense of someone else.

“I have an idea. Why don’t I become a refugee?” it concludes.

Posted on the artist’s official Facebook account on Sept. 10, it has so outraged many that they have taken to social media to express their disgust, with some launching an online petition calling on Facebook Japan to recognize the work as racist.

The campaign was started Thursday night on the petition forum Change.org under the title “Facebook must recognize an illustration insulting a Syrian refugee as racism.” It had garnered nearly 4,000 signatures and counting as of Friday evening.

“I’ve never seen anything this malicious. To think how the world and refugees will perceive this peace … I’m so ashamed,” one comment read.

“Japan has already been recognized by the world as hostile toward refugees. This work is typical of that mindset. Japan should never be a country tolerant of racism,” read another.

Facebook responded Friday to one complaint that called the illustration “annoying and distasteful,” saying it doesn’t violate its community standards.

Responding to an inquiry from The Japan Times, manga artist Toshiko Hasumi acknowledged Saturday that she is the author of the illustration.

“It is my understanding that most of the refugees fleeing Syria this time are bogus asylum seekers. Instead of traveling around furtively like before, those illegal migrants are now inundating other countries through the front door,” Hasumi said.

“I have no problem with genuine refugees who really are unfortunate. This illustration is supposed to be a dig at those ‘bogus refugees’ who are exploiting the world’s sympathy for those truly in trouble.”

Jotaro Kato, a representative of the nonprofit Asian People’s Friendship Society, an organization that supports foreigners who overstay their visas and asylum seekers, said the illustration misrepresents real refugees.

“The illustration emphasizes that refugees are living off the money of others, but on the contrary, many of them are hardworking and eager to make ends meet by themselves,” Kato said.

“At a time when people in Japan earn less and less amid the stagnant economy, they are increasingly intolerant of the idea that someone from outside their country subsists on tax money they’ve paid.”

The online outcry comes amid mounting criticism that Japan has been slow to open its doors to asylum seekers, having only recognized 11 refugees out of 5,000 applications last year.

Although he pledged $1.5 billion in emergency aid in response to the Syrian refugee crisis during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly earlier this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe avoided announcing Japan’s intention to accept refugees from the war-torn nation.

Update: This story was updated Saturday to reflect comments from the manga artist.