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Moving Beyond ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’? Japan’s Changing Refugee Policy

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Moving Beyond ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’? Japan’s Changing Refugee Policy

In its response to recent events in Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Ukraine, Japan has demonstrated greater flexibility in admitting those needing refuge.

Moving Beyond ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’? Japan’s Changing Refugee Policy
Credit: Depositphotos

During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, Japan famously did not get directly involved on the ground. Constrained by its pacifist constitution, the country opted instead to engage in economic sanctions against Iraq while contributing close to $16 billion to the war and reconstruction effort. Despite being one of the largest financial contributors, Japan received little international recognition for its efforts, even being criticized by some for its so-called “checkbook diplomacy.” This experience was subsequently seen as a foreign policy failure by Japanese policymakers. They responded by passing a law in 1992 that allowed the Japan Self-Defense Forces to take part in U.N. peacekeeping operations – paving a way for more active foreign policy. 

When it comes to refugee policy, however, Japan’s checkbook diplomacy is arguably still alive. In 2022, it was the third largest individual donor country to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), contributing more than $167 million. Moreover, private donors in Japan contributed an additional $165.5 million. On the other hand, Japan has been extremely hesitant when it comes to actually admitting refugees. From 1978 to 2022, Japan has admitted a total of 17,714 asylum seekers, a lower number than what most of its G-7 counterparts admit in any single year. 

One reason for this is the country’s low rate of asylum admissions. In the year with the largest number of asylum seekers on record, 2017, Japan granted protection to 94 applicants out of a total of 19,629, a rate of 0.005 percent. More recently, in 2020, this rate stood at 0.023 percent. This percentage reflects what is known as the total protection rate, which combines the number of applicants recognized as refugees as well as those admitted on humanitarian grounds. The rate of refugee recognition was thus even lower. In international comparison, Germany had a total protection rate of 72.3 percent in 2022

While geography alone makes a direct comparison between Japan and a country such as Germany difficult – Japan is located far away from major refugee-producing areas in the Middle East and Africa – the miniscule rate of humanitarian admissions has long been identified by critics as an example of Japan failing to live up to its international commitments. The country acceded to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981, and then to the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1982, following the Indochina refugee crisis.

In the spring of 2023, Japan gave its critics even more ammunition when it passed a controversial law that makes the deportation of asylum seekers easier. The bill had originally been tabled for early 2021 but was withdrawn after widespread protests following the death of a Sri Lankan asylum seeker, Wishma Sandamali, in a Japanese immigration detention facility. 

At the same time, and receiving far less media spotlight, Japan has upped its total protection rate dramatically. In 2021, 654 out of 2,413 (27 percent) asylum seekers were granted protection, while in 2022 this number increased even further to 1,997 out of 3,772 (53 percent). This included a record 202 applicants being granted formal refugee status.

One of the reasons for this is international circumstances leading to changing demographics in those seeking asylum in Japan. Following the American withdrawal in Afghanistan in August 2021 and subsequent government takeover by the Taliban, Japan granted fairly liberal protection to Afghans who managed to flee to Japan. In 2022, 147 Afghans were granted formal refugee status. Similarly, following the 2021 coup d’état by the military junta in Myanmar, Japan granted many of its citizens already in Japan the right to stay due to humanitarian considerations – a total of 1,668 in 2022.

Another reason relates to ongoing moves by the Immigration Services Agency (ISA) to clarify and update their rigid interpretation of international refugee law, one factor that has been partially responsible for Japan’s historically low recognition rate. Following consultation with the UNHCR, this resulted in an official guideline on refugee recognition being made public for the first time in March 2023. Notably, the guideline included new provisions that explicitly added fear of prosecution based on sexuality or gender as applicable reasons to seek asylum. 

In addition, Japan has admitted over 2,500 Ukrainians following Russia’s invasion in February 2022. However, these are classified as “evacuees” and thus do not appear as part of the statistics on asylum above. They are granted a renewable work permit, and central and regional governments have initiated various language and job matching support programs to ease their transition to life in Japan. With the admission of Ukrainian evacuees serving as a model case, Japan launched a new complementary system for “quasi-refugees” in December 2023 to provide protection to people who are at risk of persecution outside of the terms stipulated by the Refugee Convention, or on general humanitarian grounds. Crucially, those admitted under the new system are set to receive similar settlement support to recognized refugees. 

Of course, there are still numerous issues with Japan’s refugee policy. First, the conditions at immigration detention facilities, which have led to 17 deaths of detainees since 2007, need to be addressed. Second, even when counting Ukrainian evacuees and considering the higher total protection rate in recent years, Japan still admits a very small amount of asylum seekers in terms of overall numbers. This could be tackled through more proactive resettlement programs, diminishing the burden of countries that currently host a high number of refugees. There is precedent for this. For instance, Japan has welcomed a total of 121 Syrian refugees to study at Japanese universities through the Japanese Initiative for the future of Syrian Refugees (JISR). 

However, in its response to recent events in Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Ukraine, Japan has demonstrated greater flexibility in admitting those needing refuge. In a matter of two years, the total protection rate has jumped from below 1 percent to over 50 percent. This shift has been reflected in concrete policy as well. Both the clarification and expansion of refugee recognition through the release of the official guidelines as well as the complimentary “quasi-refugee” system give the ISA a greater toolbox to admit asylum seekers. 

These changes come at a critical time. In 2023, the number of asylum seekers in Japan is set to reach a record high, reflecting the continuing effects of numerous conflicts around the world as well as the abolition of pandemic-era border measures. From the perspective of those seeking asylum in Japan, then, there is hope that the country continues to move beyond checkbook diplomacy and toward becoming a more active host of those in need of protection. 

Guest Author

Maximilien Xavier Rehm

Maximilien Xavier Rehm is a Ph.D. candidate at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. His research focuses on immigration and refugee policy in Japan, with a focus on the policymaking process, immigration control policy, and the politics of immigration. Maximilien holds a master's degree in international relations from Ritsumeikan University.