Russia’s war on Ukraine, now in its second month, has drawn full-throated denunciation from Japan in line with the United States and its Western allies. Within hours of the invasion, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio implemented strong sanctions against the regime of Vladimir Putin, ramped up aid and supplies to Ukraine, and, in tandem with its Western allies, brought significant diplomatic pressure to bear on Putin’s Russia. These governmental initiatives were accompanied by an outpouring of concern from the Japanese public, who left their homes en masse to march in the largest anti-war rallies since the Beheiren protests during the U.S.-Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s.
The most recent initiative in this regard is the evacuation of 20 Ukrainian nationals to Japan on the official aircraft carrying Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa back from his tour of Europe on April 4. This was followed up by declarations by government officials that the new entrants would be afforded every form of aid, whether financial or material, necessary for them to reside in Japan. The secretary in charge of human rights and foreigners’ issues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has gone on record stating that mental health assistance would be provided to the new refugees.
This solicitousness ought to be of considerable interest and surprise to professional Japan-watchers, who have long known of Japan’s notoriously indifferent – if not hostile – attitude toward those displaced by conflict. The numbers themselves tell the story: Japan accepted a mere 47 out of 3,936 applicants for refugee status in 2020, of which a large fraction were given bureaucratically-determined special permission to stay or humanitarian status, which does not guarantee the same level of support that refugee status can provide.
Even in the rare cases where refugee status (or its domestic counterpart) is granted, very little official support is available in precisely the same domains mentioned above; most services relating to the material, and especially mental, wellbeing of refugees are left up to the generosity of private sponsors or local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who are themselves reliant on private donations or government subsidies in order to operate. Even these services have recently been under assault. A now-withdrawn bill attempted to deny asylum-seekers from appealing their rejection under certain circumstances and make it easier to deport them, something international law, and especially the Refugee Conventions, explicitly forbid (the so-called right of non-refoulement).
The plight of asylum-seekers and other conflict migrants in Japan is best exemplified by the string of deaths at the immigration detention centers administered by the Immigration Services Agency – some due to outright violence inflicted on inmates by guards.
Needless to say, in such circumstances, one would do well to take a deeper look at the welcome Ukrainian refugees are being accorded. To be sure, as several commentators have already pointed out, there are sound geopolitical reasons involved: accepting the refugees indicates Japan’s support of the Ukrainian cause, and strengthens its voice in international fora. One can also point to the other salient geopolitical factor involved: U.S. power and European attention has been hyper-focused on the Ukraine conflict (while neglecting non-European conflicts such as those in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, or South Sudan), which requires Japan to match its walk with its talk, as it were, by sharing the load of caring for refugees equitably.
Geopolitical factors have played a seminal role in shaping Japanese refugee policy before, most notably during the so-called boat people crisis following the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 and the establishment of the Communist one-party state there. Michael Strausz has wonderfully traced how the intervention of the United States under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter caused Japan to essentially open its closed door to refugees and take over 17,000 individuals from Southeast Asia over the next 30 years. At the time, as Strausz makes clear, though there was significant opposition from lawmakers (and the public). However, by framing the action as one of national charity toward unfortunate fellow Asians, an augmentation of Japan’s international reputation and its liberal-democratic credentials as a card-carrying member of the West, the Japanese government was able to significantly expand its maneuvering space and blunt the criticism.
However, it is worthwhile to look at deeper domestic factors at play as well. As I have argued elsewhere, all national policies can be said to have a teleology, which is not merely an objective that the policy itself is supposed to achieve, but an outcome that defines and shapes one or the other prong of Andrew Heywood’s definition of a nation-state: a political organization and a political ideal. In the case of immigration policies, the factor being defined is the ideal form of a nation-state, in particular, its demographic, cultural, and social structure.
In this light, Japan’s immigration policy, including its refugee policy, stands as an ideal example of what can be called a utilitarian-functional type of policy, which views foreignness through an overwhelmingly economic lens, and treats migrants as interchangeable tools, to be organized, ranked and utilized in light of their perceived “usefulness” to Japanese society. Refugees in this schema are highly likely to be perceived as net negatives economically and are thus ranked at the bottom of the utility scale.
In this light, Japan’s embrace of Ukrainian refugees must be explained as a result of several interrelated factors. A close look at the visuals of the refugees entering Narita airport is instructive: The lion’s share appear to be families in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, some with small children in tow. The oldest person in the group is 66 years old. Not only is this indicative of some cherry-picking, it is also enlightening in that young families with children are most likely to be perceived as easily assimilable. Of course, the refugees are most likely expected to return to Ukraine at the earliest opportunity once peace returns, in which case their impact will be minor. However, should they choose to stay (or be forced to by circumstances in Ukraine), the government of Japan no doubt hopes that these young individuals and families will assimilate quickly and completely into Japanese society.
The fact of their origin is also not irrelevant. It is highly likely that the Ukrainians, as Eastern Europeans, are perceived to be socially advanced, highly skilled (irrespective of their actual accomplishments), and “well-suited” for life in an advanced country such as Japan, an unfortunate artifact of Japan’s hierarchical outlook on the world. Even if this is not the case, it is extremely probable that it is expected that they could acquire such skills quickly, due to their relative youth and productivity. This could explain why such a welcome has not been afforded to victims of Asian conflicts, who are likely to be looked down on as objects of pity or suspicion rather than skilled and talented individuals in their own right. In effect, the Ukrainians come pre-loaded with social capital in their new home, which could smoothen their way to assimilation considerably. With the added benefit of government-sanctioned aid, they could well be unbeatable in terms of adjustment in Japan.
One can of course hope that Japan’s acceptance of Ukrainian refugees could herald an evolution in Japan’s overall policy toward refugees. On April 8, it was announced that a bill creating a “quasi-refugee” status for those fleeing war and privation would be introduced into the Diet as early as the summer session. However, it is difficult to be optimistic. It defies belief that the Japanese government’s fundamental outlook on refugees has changed in any significant way, and its utilitarian-functional base remains intact. Japan is already a signatory to the Refugee Conventions, which invites a completely different set of questions as to why it insists on introducing quasi-statuses into the equation.
Meanwhile, the laying out of the welcome mat for Ukrainian refugees can be explained by reference to the intensity of domestic and international attention on the crisis. Accepting Ukrainian refugees will not only give Japanese citizens a sense of accomplishment for having done their part in the conflict, it will also allow the government to claim credit for a renewed one-time national sacrifice, once again sharing the largesse of Japanese society with unfortunates driven from their home by war. If by doing so it gains a few new European permanent residents willing to set down roots and dedicate themselves to “productive” pursuits, so much the better.
At the same time, Japan’s doors will remain closed to other refugees, equally deserving of care and protection, but apparently not worth the perceived effort, because no significant power cares enough about their condition to induce a change in Japan’s restrictive policies.