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March 24th marks one month since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, starting a war that has forced millions of Ukrainians to flee their country.

Kanako Takahara explains Japan’s efforts to help these refugees, and why the government here isn’t calling them by that name. Later in the episode, we hear the story of Maria, a 71-year-old Ukrainian woman who was reunited with her daughter Nataliia last Friday, after a six-day ordeal escaping from Ukraine to Japan.

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Transcript

Note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Oscar Boyd  00:09

Hello and welcome to Deep Dive. From The Japan Times, I’m Oscar Boyd. 

Oscar Boyd  00:13

March 24th marks one month since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, starting a war that has forced millions of Ukrainians to flee their country. This week, my colleague Kanako Takahara tells us about Japan’s efforts to help these refugees, and why the government here isn’t calling them by that name. Later in the episode, we hear the story of Maria, a 71 year old Ukrainian woman who was reunited with her daughter Nataliia last Friday, after a six day ordeal escaping from Ukraine to Japan.

Oscar Boyd  00:53

Kanako, welcome back to Deep Dive. Thanks so much for joining me again.

Kanako Takahara  00:55

Thanks for having me again.

Oscar Boyd  00:57

It’s now been a month since Russia started its invasion of Ukraine. How many people are thought to have fled Ukraine as a result of this war?

Kanako Takahara  01:06

Well, according to UNHCR estimates, about 3.5 million at the time of recording, and the number is increasing daily, the amount is massive. 

Oscar Boyd  01:18

Right, and it’s really only half the story as well, because there’s many millions more who’ve been displaced internally. For those who have left Ukraine, though, where are they mainly going?

Kanako Takahara  01:28

About half of them are going to Poland, their neighboring country. Poland has kept the borders open and there are a lot of volunteers there that are helping out these refugees. And, if they have relatives or friends elsewhere, they would go from there to another country, maybe. But a lot of them are still staying there, and it’s kind of becoming a concern for Poland as well.

Oscar Boyd  01:54

Well more than 2 million people so far are estimated to be in Poland, I think about half a million in Romania, and about 350,000 in Moldova, all of these are neighboring countries to Ukraine. And if we move to Japan, how many people fleeing the war in Ukraine has Japan accepted so far?

Kanako Takahara  02:13

As of Wednesday last week, the government said that Japan has accepted 73 people who have fled Ukraine. And that’s a handful of people compared to other countries. But they are not considered refugees, they’re just people that Japan accepted from Ukraine, they are not “refugees,” according to government standards.

Oscar Boyd  02:38

Okay. And you wrote an article on this issue, so could you help explain it to me. The government is referring to the Ukrainians it’s accepting as “evacuees” rather than “refugees.” Why is that?

Kanako Takahara  02:50

So in the eyes of the Japanese government, they are not refugees until they have been granted refugee status. And in order to be granted refugee status, you have to go through a bunch of applications and a screening process. And then after a couple of months, or maybe even years, then you’ll be granted refugee status. According to Japan, there’s this criteria that you need to clear to be designated a refugee. And according to the Japanese government, Ukrainians who are fleeing from their countries probably don’t pass that criteria, and they won’t be granted refugee status.

Oscar Boyd  03:37

But if the UN’s refugee agency is calling Ukrainians fleeing the war refugees, why is that not the case in Japan?

Kanako Takahara  03:45

Well I would say that it’s a war torn country, but that’s not among the criteria. So that’s, I guess, the biggest reason. And this has happened before, for instance, if Japan wants to accept people from Afghanistan after last year, they probably won’t be able to be granted refugee status, because they won’t meet those criteria. And that’s been happening for a number of internal disputes, for instance Syria, in the past.

Oscar Boyd  04:21

Basically, Japan has this incredibly strict criteria for refugees. And so they’ve had to effectively make this separate category for Ukrainians who are fleeing their country? 

Kanako Takahara  04:35

So critics criticize this as being a narrow definition of refugees. And that’s certainly why the number of people that the Japanese government has accepted as refugees is so low, because of that narrow definition. On the other hand, the government is aware that they need to have humanitarian consideration for these people, so they have another set of criteria, or another category, which is granting them residential status that will allow them to work in Japan and have access to all the public benefits like the national health care program, and other grants, for instance.

Oscar Boyd  05:21

Have we seen Japan use a similar system for bringing in “evacuees” in the past?

Kanako Takahara  05:27

As a matter of fact, yes. Maybe other countries see Japan as a country that doesn’t really accept refugees, but in the past, they have. Just after the Vietnam War, there were floods of people fleeing from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. And between 1978 and 2005, Japan accepted about 11,000 refugees from those three countries, and they had this entire system where they would accept them, help them settle in the country, find them jobs, offer them accommodation. So there is a framework or system in Japan that will allow that, and lawmakers have said that maybe Japan can accept Ukrainians fleeing the country using that framework.

Oscar Boyd  06:20

But again, it’s outside the main refugee pathway for Japan.

Kanako Takahara  06:25

Right. It’s separate from the refugee status thing. And currently, Japan only accepts, under that framework, people from Asian countries. So if they want to expand that to Ukranians, they would probably need some kind of a Diet deliberation or government internal discussions to make it official for Ukrainians to use that framework.

Oscar Boyd  08:14

Under this evacuee scheme that’s been set up, who from Ukraine actually qualifies to come to Japan?

Kanako Takahara  08:21

Well, until last week, it was only the people who have families and friends here. But then on Friday, the government said that they are going to expand that to all people from Ukraine. So even if you don’t have family and friends in Japan, you’re going to be granted the short-term visa to come to Japan.

Oscar Boyd  08:46

Okay, so they’re expanding it from people who had established support networks here, to a more general group of people who, whether they have a support network here or not, are still able to come to Japan. 

Kanako Takahara  08:57

That’s correct. 

Oscar Boyd  08:58

Does the government have either a target or a limit on how many people it plans to accept?

Kanako Takahara  09:03

Well, currently, because of the pandemic, there is an entry cap for arrivals. And currently, that’s 7000. But the government has said that these people coming to Japan are outside of that cap. So there’s not a target or a cap for them to come to Japan. But I would say because of the language barrier, and because of the distance from Ukraine to Japan, there won’t be a flood of people coming to Japan from Ukraine.

Oscar Boyd  09:37

And for the people who are trying to come to Japan, what’s the process like in terms of getting accepted for this evacuee status?

Kanako Takahara  09:46

So they first need to go to a Japanese Embassy and they would probably go to Warsaw, Poland. There is a Japanese Embassy there so they would go there and do the necessary paperwork. And then they will get a visa in a couple of days. They would get their flight tickets on their own, and then fly out from there to come to Japan. That would be the typical case.

Oscar Boyd  10:00

And do you know how burdensome that paperwork process is? Because I think everyone knows that Japan loves its paperwork. Anyone who’s ever dealt with Japanese bureaucracy knows that you end up with a stack of paper about half a meter high.

Kanako Takahara  10:31

Right, so they’re trying to simplify it. But right now, they would need that application form. Plus, for those who have friends and family here, they need another form, to show that they have friends and family here. The families would typically send some kind of a PDF form by email, and then they would be sorted, screened and then get a short-term visa for 90 days.

Oscar Boyd  10:58

And what does the short-term visa for 90 days allow?

Kanako Takahara  11:02

Simply just coming to Japan, for now. And then, if they want, they could apply for a longer-term visa that will allow them to work in Japan. And currently, the government has started accepting people switching from the short-term visa to a longer-term visa in Japan. So once they settle in, they can apply to switch for a longer-term visa.

Oscar Boyd  11:31

So in effect, that 90-day visa — the short term visa that they’re given at the Japanese Embassy they’re applying at — that’s just to get them to come to Japan. 

Kanako Takahara  11:40

Yes, correct. 

Oscar Boyd  11:41

So similar to a tourist visa, right? What doesn’t it allow?

Kanako Takahara  11:46

So if you only have a short term visa, you won’t be able to have access to the national health care program. And then you won’t be able to get benefits, a lot of benefits, including help from municipalities, for instance. But if you have a longer visa, the biggest and most important thing would be that you’ll be able to work in Japan, and then have access to all kinds of benefits.

Oscar Boyd  12:19

So it really is a two-step process. Once they’ve applied and got their initial entry visa — the 90-day visa to come to Japan — the expectation then is for people who want to stay here for longer to switch onto a longer-term visa that will give them medical benefits, and the subsidies you’re talking about. 

Kanako Takahara  12:36

Right. It will probably take more time to grant a longer-term visa in the first place. So I think for the time being, for the Japanese Embassy to issue a visa, it’s very simple if it’s a short-term visa for them to to come to Japan.

Oscar Boyd  12:55

And in principle, the Immigration Services Agency is willing to transition people onto these longer-term visas. 

Kanako Takahara  13:04

Yes.

Oscar Boyd  13:04

What challenges are people facing in terms of the logistics of actually getting to Japan, visa issues aside?

Kanako Takahara  13:11

Well, just getting out of the country is a struggle. And a lot of people I’ve talked to are driving for several days or traveling even a week to just get out of the country and go to a major city, like Warsaw. So that’s a struggle, for one. But aside from getting the application for the visa, they probably won’t have a lot of money. And then they would need to purchase a flight ticket, which could be very expensive. A lot of the opposition lawmakers and ruling party lawmakers are saying that maybe the Japanese government should provide that kind of support as well. Support them to fly to Japan.

Oscar Boyd   13:13

Okay, so subsidize, or pay for entirely, the plane tickets to come here. 

Kanako Takahara  13:20

Right. 

Oscar Boyd   13:22

Because I imagine the other issue is that this war in Ukraine is not happening in isolation. It comes on the back of two years of disrupted and reduced flights to Japan because of COVID-19, which already sent prices up. And then on top of that, because of the Ukraine crisis, a lot of the flight corridors that go from Europe to Japan would typically fly over Russia, and that airspace is now entirely closed to many flight operators.

Kanako Takahara  14:30

Right. So I wouldn’t think there are a lot of direct flights coming in to Japan from Warsaw. So they would probably transit to another European country or another place and that would add more time to travel to Japan and that would be frustrating for them as well.

Oscar Boyd  14:56

At the beginning of March, Kanako reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in teaming up with her to report on the refugees arriving here from Ukraine. I said I’d be happy to, but after that initial conversation, a week flew past with no progress. Unsurprisingly, we were having trouble finding anyone who wanted to share their experience, compounded by the fact that so few Ukranians had actually been able to come to Japan. Then, last Thursday, Kanako sent me a message telling me that she was in touch with a woman called Nataliia Lysneko, whose mother would be arriving from Ukraine the next day.  This is how I found myself on an eastbound train on a Friday afternoon, watching the city turn to farmland on that long, often-complained about journey from Tokyo to Narita Airport. 

Oscar Boyd  15:43

When I meet Nataliia in the International Arrivals lobby at Narita, she is accompanied by her husband and her two children, Adelina and Marc, and is dressed in an overcoat that is the same bright shade of yellow that has become synonymous with the Ukrainian resistance. Kanako and I are not the only reporters at the airport to meet her, but Nataliia beckons us over, introduces us to her children, and begins to tell us about her mother, Maria. 

Nataliia Lysenko  16:06

So she’s 71, and in May, she will turn 72. She didn’t want to leave her house and apartment because she’s a very kind person and she helped our neighbors who are disabled, and she was taking care of them. So that was also a point which was keeping her there.

Oscar Boyd  16:32

Nataliia tells us she had been trying to persuade Maria to come to Japan for weeks, but her mother was reluctant to leave her home in Zaporizhzhya in southeastern Ukraine, near the nuclear power plant that was shelled and then seized by Russian soldiers earlier in March. She wanted to stay and look after her neighbors and also with her two sons — Nataliia’s brothers — who are still in Ukraine.  

Oscar Boyd  16:50

You said your mother didn’t want to leave her home. What was it that made her levee in the end?

Nataliia Lysenko  16:59

My daughter and my son so yeah, she’s great diplomat.

Oscar Boyd  17:05

The other voice you can hear in the background is Adelina, Nataliia’s daughter:

Nataliia Lysenko  17:09

Yeah because it was a panic. And my mother started crying, “No, I don’t want to leave.” And my daughter was very … 

Adelina Lysenko  17:19

[in background] Church, church

Nataliia Lysenko  17:20

And yes, yes, she’s a very religious person. And she said, “Oh, no, I will be lonely. I have no … ”  

Adelina Lysenko  17:27

“I need church.” But I said, “It doesn’t matter where you are praying. It’s only important  that you believe in god.” 

Nataliia Lysenko  17:37

Without her help. I think we couldn’t make it.

Oscar Boyd  17:43

As we wait for Maria outside the arrivals gate, the mood grows increasingly tense. Her plane landed two hours ago, but there’s still no sign of her. Nataliia paces back and forth, trying to get through to her mother’s phone and messaging her brothers in Ukraine to update them on the lack of progress. Another hour passes and we begin to wonder if something might have gone wrong: after all Maria is traveling to Japan alone, she doesn’t speak Japanese or English, and has to get through Japan’s stringent COVID-19 screening process, all at the end of an exhausting six-day escape through her war torn homeland.  

Nataliia Lysenko  18:15

She’s so innocent, like a child. She was worried that she would get lost somewhere, and that nobody could help her. She left Ukraine with two other mothers and they went by train to Lviv, the west part of Ukraine. And after that, they took a bus and went to the border with Poland. And after that, they took a bus and went to Warsaw. All this time, I was trying to find somebody who could help her and assist them and accompany them because, you know, she’s a 70-year old lady in a foreign country, and she was just paralyzed and couldn’t do anything.

Oscar Boyd  19:02

With the help of Polish volunteers, Maria applied for a visa at the Japanese embassy in Warsaw, using the documents given to her by one of her sons before she had left home. When her visa was approved and her preflight COVID test came back negative, she was able to board a plane to Zurich and then onto Narita, where her family is waiting. Each time the large double-doors open at arrivals, Nataliia looks up expectantly, hoping that it will be her mother on the other side. Time and time again, she is disappointed. There is a group of passengers coming back from a skiing holiday, there are flight attendants and pilots with neatly pressed uniforms, and occasionally there’s a border control officer wearing hazmat gear. Remarkably, Nataliia manages to remain buoyant throughout, and begins to imagine what she will do with her mother when they are reunited. With the pandemic limiting travel to and from Japan, it will be the first time they have seen each other in four years. 

Nataliia Lysenko  19:53

She loves sushi, so maybe we’ll eat sushi. And yeah, I just want to hug her and feel her, smell her warmth. Yeah, maybe it will be like … first yeah, I want to, just to talk to her and make sure she’s fine.

Oscar Boyd  20:25

When it finally happens, it all happens very quickly.  There is a gasp, a yell, a rush of fabric as the family surge forward as one. Maria comes through the doors, visibly exhausted and pushing a trolley loaded with her possessions. The family envelop her in a hug, pressing as close to her as they can — feeling her warmth, breathing in her smell.  And then there are tears, as grief and relief flood the room. Despite her exhaustion, Maria graciously agrees to speak with us for a moment. She tells us that she feels blessed to have made it to Japan, to be with her daughter and with her grandchildren. Nataliia props up her mother as she speaks, and echoes her feelings while struggling to hold back tears.   

Nataliia Lysenko  21:16

Oh, I still can’t realize that it’s reality. Maybe after spending a little time together, I will realize yes, it’s reality. I can hug my mom and I can talk to her and not by phone but in real life. So I’m happy now. Really happy.

Oscar Boyd  21:40

Flanked by her family, Maria leaves the airport for her new home, setting out on that same two-hour trip from Narita to Tokyo that so many of us complain about, the final leg of her six-day journey from Ukraine.  

Oscar Boyd  22:06

Kanako, we just heard the story of Maria’s arrival in Japan last Friday. When people fleeing Ukraine do actually make it to Japan, what challenges are they facing here?

Kanako Takahara  22:15

So first, they’ll probably be exhausted. Right now we’re seeing just the people who have families and friends here. So they have support systems. Their families and friends can meet them at the airport, and then they could be living with them or they have a hotel where they can be taken care of. But from here on, if we see more people who don’t have that support system, it’s going to be a struggle to just … they’ll think that they arrived in Japan, and that’s a huge relief. But I would say that their struggle will continue if they don’t have that kind of support system in Japan, just to know the ABCs or the 101s of living in Japan. There are a lot of NGOs and NPOs trying to help out. But we’ll see how it goes.

Oscar Boyd  23:11

What kind of support networks are being built up in Japan with the mind to help the people who might not have existing support networks here?

Kanako Takahara  23:19

Right now, there’s not much organizational support. But there is a Ukrainian community organization group that’s really active on Facebook and other social media. If they can contact them, then they would probably be willing to help. And there’s also a Japanese refugee group that is also willing to help out on the paperwork and everything. So that would probably be the ones that you would want to reach out to.

Oscar Boyd  23:54

I’ll put a link to those groups in the show notes for this episode. How about the government? Is the government offering much in the way of support either at a national or prefectural level?

Kanako Takahara  24:04

So a lot of municipalities have offered to provide accommodation, housing, Japanese language lessons, and daily supplies. But I would think you need to be connected to that. So if you have that kind of network in Japan, like friends and family who can help you connect to those municipalities, I think that’s a big help. But if you don’t have anyone here, and you don’t know how to seek that help, that could be a little challenging. But a lot of prefectures — Yokohama, Osaka, Tokyo — they’ve created hotlines as well, and not just in Japanese but in English, Ukrainian and Russian. So if they could reach out to them, then they would be able to help out.

Oscar Boyd  24:57

And if people are arriving here and, for the first 90-days on the short term visa they have, they’re not able to work. If they’re arriving with little in the way of financial resources or money, how are people supposed to actually be living and supporting themselves?

Kanako Takahara  25:12

I have no idea. Really, I think they will be totally at a loss for what to do. If they are younger, and have the means of internet connection, they could reach out to those Ukrainian groups in Japan. But if you’re older, and you don’t know that kind of network, you could just be at a loss at the airport, not knowing what to do.

Oscar Boyd  25:40

Has there been any discussion of mental health support or anything like that for people coming to the country, because these are all people who’ve left a war torn country and left their homes very suddenly and probably in a state of panic as well.

Kanako Takahara  25:53

Right. I haven’t seen that kind of support yet. That could be a very important issue down the road. Because these people, some may want to go back, they’re not sure if they want to settle in Japan for the longer term, because of the language barrier. They don’t speak Japanese. And we don’t know if they speak English either. That means they are going to be very isolated, or feeling lonely. And that could be a problem, adjusting to the environment in Japan. That could be very, very challenging. 

Oscar Boyd  26:38

So it sounds like from everything that you said so far that basically the policy is to get people into the country as quickly as possible, if they’re interested in coming, using this short term visa scheme. And then to deal with the longer-term effects as they come. So with that in mind, is the conversation around supporting Ukrainians evolving? Do you think we’ll see extra support down the line to help people who do want to settle here integrate into Japan as smoothly as possible?

Kanako Takahara  27:04

Right, I think the current phase is to just accept these people and to offer them the necessary visa, the necessary accommodation. But in the long-term, in the future, in the months to come, there’ll probably be discussions about how to smooth them into the Japanese environment, offer them language services, language lessons, and offer jobs that would help them settle in Japan for a longer term.

Oscar Boyd  27:49

That was Kanako Takahara, my thanks to her, and also to Maria, Nataliia, Adelina and Mark, for letting me interview them at Narita Airport last week. A link to Kanako’s article about the family’s reunification is in the show notes. 

Also in The Japan Times this week: After a Magnitude 7.4 earthquake shut down several power plants in northern Japan last week, Tuesday’s cold weather threatened Tokyo and large swaths of Japan with blackouts as electricity supply struggled to keep up with demand, leading the government to ask people in affected regions to conserve energy.  

Meanwhile on Sunday, The Japan Meteorological Agency announced that Tokyo’s cherry blossoms have officially started blooming, four days earlier than average. The agency made its announcement after confirming that a Somei-Yoshino cherry tree at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo had begun to bloom. Although COVID restrictions were officially lifted on Monday nationwide, six parks in Tokyo including Ueno, Inokashira and Yoyogi have banned hanami picnics on their premises.  

That’s it for this episode. Thanks as always for listening. Until next time, as always, podtsukaresama.