The Japanese Dream: Minorities’ Struggles and Successes in Japan

Phuong poses outside a photo exhibition in which she is featured. A photographer passionate about refugee rights held an exhibition to raise awareness about refugees living in Japan for World Refugee Day (June 20th) in Omotesando Station, Tokyo, in 2016.

by Marina Yoshimura


[dropcap]P[/dropcap]huong Phamthihoai was in her mother’s womb when she left Vietnam in 1989, eight years after the Japanese government began to officially accept refugees. In the wake of the Indochina refugee crisis, her family escaped their country on a boat with a broker and eventually reached Japan, where they sought asylum. They moved years after the UN Refugee Agency pressured the Japanese government to accept Indochinese refugees, which led the government to implement a policy to officially began to admit refugees in 1981 after signing the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry. The Ministry also notes that by 2005, the Japanese government had admitted around 11,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. However, the Japanese government had a reason to accept refugees at the time, contrary to its closed-door policy today. “Japanese leaders agreed to admit Indochinese refugees because they came to believe that this would not set a precedent that would make Japan into a major destination for refugee resettlement,” Michael Strausz, Associate Professor and Director of Asian Studies and Political Science at Texas Christian University, said. Although the Japanese government accepts foreign trainees and workers on a temporary basis, it maintains a closed-door policy toward refugees and immigrants seeking permanent residency despite an increase in the number of applicants. Instead of having other countries pressure the Japanese government to play its part, which was the case in the Indochina refugee crisis, the Japanese government should look within and ask itself how it can ameliorate the situations that refugees face. Japan’s population is both shrinking and aging. The workforce is struggling to meet corporate or organizational standards; death from overwork has made the workplace an entrance to the graveyard for many workers. Refugees can help, and Japan can help them, too. Phuong’s story illuminates how refugees and other minorities currently live in Japan. She also proves that admitting refugees, and by extension, minorities, is an asset to Japan because they bring diversity, talent, and ideas, all from which the country would benefit and need to survive.

As a refugee herself, Phuong understands the struggles minorities face in Japan. I had the opportunity to meet Phuong at the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), a nonprofit organization that provides legal and social assistance to refugee applicants in Japan. Both of us were interns there, during which we saw refugee applicants stumbling into our office with nothing but pennies and a modicum of hope. Supporting refugees requires a system and process. Admitting refugees is the first step; the next is to help them integrate and adjust to their new environment, whether it is to provide language programs (which the government does, but with restrictions because there are limits to the classes one can take), cultural education, and education for the civic population regarding minorities. Regardless of the Japanese government’s legal and systemic changes to refugee admission, the cultural and social misunderstandings and stigma left Phuong isolated in a town in which her father began a business. Her skepticism stems from the fact that as a stateless person, she felt that the Japanese government did not give her or her family the support system to integrate into Japanese society. They had little information to start a business, to pay taxes, and to do their job. Admitting refugees is not just about putting a stamp on their documents to approve them of their stay. Japan’s reluctance to admit refugees has not changed. In lieu of refugees, the Japanese government has been recruiting foreign workers on a temporary basis. The government appears to want foreigners for the labor, but not for their intrinsic value. The framework that it devises determines which foreigners are welcome, and which of them are not. Refugee applicants are the latter.

Regardless, the Japanese government has maintained a harsh refugee admission policy for years, especially after it ended its admission of Indochinese refugees in 2005. It accepts the least number of refugees among the G7 members. In 2017, the Japanese government rejected 99% of applicants, admitting just 20 out of 19,628, according to Japan’s Ministry of Justice. A lower acceptance rate than Yale’s, the government’s strict adherence to its closed-door policy appears to be a regression from globalization. The consequence could me and missing the “best and brightest” of refugees.

Refugee applicants have not given up. Despite the government’s restrictions, the number of applicants has soared over the years, with an 80% jump from 2016 to 2017. Applicants in 2017 hailed from 82 countries, the largest cohorts from the Philippines (4,895) and Vietnam (3,116), according to Japan’s Justice Ministry. As a refugee from Vietnam, Phuong knows the Japanese government’s unwelcoming structure all too well. “If I could give one piece of advice to refugee applicants, I would tell them, don’t apply in Japan,” she said. Refugees’ cries for help fall on deaf ears due to the government’s reluctance to provide support to those in need of help. As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Japan can do better with its refugee policy.

Whether they are refugees, stateless, immigrants, or foreign workers, the Japanese government should provide a settlement program that not only admits refugees but also establishes a support system that would help them integrate into society. According to a Japan Times editorial published on June 22, 2018, along with the maximum five-year limit on their stay, the workers under the planned visa status will not be allowed to bring family members to Japan. Such restrictions prevent those who are accepted to fully integrate into society. If the government refuses to assume the mantle of leadership in fulfilling refugees’ needs, it should at least provide a framework that allows the private sector and citizens to get involved directly in refugee aid. For example, the Canadian government initiated the Private Sponsorship Program, which allows private citizens to sponsor refugees. Specifically, the Canadian government looks for “A Group of Five (G5)”—five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents who have arranged to sponsor a refugee living abroad to come to Canada” (Government of Canada). Such initiatives raise awareness about refugee issues and encourage citizens to understand the refugee crisis at a personal level, which may be the most effective form of education.

Governance not only affects a country’s policies but also determines the culture and public perception of certain issues. The U.S. government is not alone in creating policies that separate families; the Japanese government does so, too, by detaining applicants and only allowing family members to see them at the detention center. Such practices demonstrate how governments often neglect human rights to prioritize political expediency.

In Japan, discussions regarding refugees and immigrants are rare, although recently, the debate has gained prominence due to the  country’s panic over its shrinking and aging population. While the Japanese government provides financial assistance, this should not be the sole resource of support for refugees. Japan, as the holder of the G7 Presidency, and as an advocate for human security, has been proactively contributing to improve the refugee crisis,” said Prime Minister Abe at the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants in September. Whether he is acting upon this rhetoric is questionable. There is a difference between vocalizing change and committing to it; the Japanese government seems to neglect the latter. Although it provides financial assistance to countries that have produced many refugees, such as Myanmar, little has changed at home because the borders remain closed. Such systems leave refugee applicants in Japan in destitute, without a stable status, and limited legal protection.

Foreigners, especially refugee applicants and immigrants, face uncertainty at the immigration bureau; those from the West seem to encounter less difficulty. Chris Lawson, a Scottish resident in Japan and the CEO of Sterling Content—a Tokyo-based communications agency—said that as he waited in line to show his papers at the immigration counter, he met a Japanese man who was taking care of his clients. The man said to Lawson that “most of his clients were both Americans or European as usually they have the money and are easiest to get visas for,” adding that Africans and other Asians have trouble obtaining visas “so he doesn’t have them as clients.” The Japanese immigration system is not only inefficient, which is not unique to Japan, but Western privilege and implicit bias also appear to play into the system, leaving racial minorities vulnerable under the country’s jurisdiction. Information on how to apply as a refugee and a list of legal rights are not immediately accessible either. The Immigration Bureau website has a PDF file labeled, “Recognition of Refugee Status” under its “Immigration procedures” tab. However, the website says the page was “Not Found,” as of July 19, 2018 EST. Because the file supposedly includes information on one’s status and the procedures of applying for refugee recognition, not being able to access this file would leave refugee applicants uninformed or misinformed about their status. The Japanese Prime Minister is right; the Japanese government and organizations have provided aid, but is it the aid that refugees ask for? Has Japan, as a country, ever stopped to consider what these refugees need, not what we think they need? Receptivity, rational compassion, and responsiveness are integral to refugee aid.

Japanese people were predominantly noukouminzoku, “an agricultural people,” which pressured to conform to a set of values to get their share of food. (Outliers would have lost their share of rice that they had cultivated as a team.)  Refusing to accept refugees on the grounds of “security” and fear of losing traditions is a misguided decision that is a manifestation of xenophobia. Japanese perception of security is not limited to physical safety. Many Japanese people doubt that foreigners can understand or follow its traditions and customs because being unique or different is not widely accepted in Japanese society. To this day, the groups and so-called majorities would marginalize anyone who is labeled or considered “different,” which was the case for refugees such as Phuong and her family. The Japanese tax agency approached Phuong’s parents and accused them of not paying taxes because the agency was skeptical of their business and the profit the family had been making. In addition, a Japanese man hurled slurs at Phuong on her way back from school when she was a high school student. Japanese society often idealizes the caucasian West, while it looks down on much of Asia due to its colonialist past. In a society that values conformity in appearance, not just in ethnicity, having a darker complexion from Southeast Asia leads to discrimination, an experience that Phuong had as well. Beauty products in Japan often have the caption bihaku, which translates to “beautiful whiteness,” demonstrating the beauty standards that make non-white minorities especially susceptible to marginalization. Such standards are problematic when the Japanese government is showing how “diverse” it  has become in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Its presentation and reality are worlds apart. With a flood of such workers joining Japanese society, education regarding and exposure to the refugee crisis can catalyze acceptance among the Japanese population and be the solution for a more diverse country.

To be fair, the Japanese government has taken some measures to increase diversity in the country. The Japanese government has redoubled its efforts to embrace “diversity” in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by adding signs in foreign languages in public spaces to facilitate navigation. The government has allowed foreign workers into the country, mostly from Vietnam, China, and the Philippines, and is expected to total 400,000, who work primarily in the manufacturing industry. Inviting immigrants, especially refugees who have pressing reasons to leave their country, has benefits for Japan.  “In order to maintain the population at 100 million, theoretically, Japan must accept a mammoth 200,000 immigrants each year, which would lift the fertility rate to 2.07 from 1.42 by 2030,” argues Thisanka Siripala in The Diplomat. “As for the current goal, welcoming 500,000 workers means accepting on average 71,430 workers each year over seven years.” The Japanese government would need to make even more drastic shifts to maintain this.

It’s time for Japan to start accepting more immigrants and refugees. Japan is not homogenous, so it shouldn’t pretend to be. The sakoku period (1630-1853)— a time of seclusion from the rest of the world—is long over. With globalization, an unprecedented number of foreigners are visit the country. In addition to tourists, the demand and supply for foreign workers are increasing. By October of 2017, there were 1.28 million foreign workers— foreign trainees and students— who arrived in Japan, according to The Japan Times. The fact that the Japanese government accepts so few refugees is absurd, given that foreigners are already flooding into the country—many for legitimate reasons.

The Japanese government evades the topic of immigration. Today, the country keeps its doors to too many asylum seekers, immigrants, and non-Japanese residents without understanding the impact this closed-door system could have on the country’s growth. At a plenary session of the Senate on January 28, 2016, Prime Minister Abe said he was “not thinking at all about what is called immigration policy.” His statement is representative not only of the government’s view, but also of the citizens’. According to the Nikkei, 60% of 18-29 year-olds in Japan voted yes to immigration, while 30% responded no. Those above 70 years old The government is adamant about keeping its country homogenous. Prime Minister Abe has announced a “Japan First” policy, which prioritizes the Japanese government over other social issues. When Foreign Minister Taro Kono worked as a veteran policymaker, he was critical of the current immigration policy in Japan, arguing that this needs to change if Japanese people wanted to see a future in their country. He argued that, “Even if we could miraculously raise the birthrate, it would take 20 years for the next generation to be able to join the workforce. We have to take measures in the labor market.” Although Minister Kono is in the Cabinet working for Prime Minister Abe, let’s hope that he still has immigration issues on his mind.

Despite difficulties with the Japanese government’s treatment toward refugees and applicants, Phuong never lost sight of her goals. She knew where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do. In Japan, she mastered Japanese at her local primary school and English at an English language school. She attended New York University (NYU) for college and pursued a master’s degree at Columbia School of Social Work. Her resilience, tenacity, and diligence helped her break all odds, challenging the Japanese idea that one must conform and assimilate to be successful. She is an outlier, but exactly the kind of citizen that Japanese society needs today. More importantly, her success serves as a model for other minorities in Japan by taking the  path that she took. Today, she works in the Human Resources Department of the Japanese branch of Boston Scientific, a company that manufactures medical devices. She has landed herself a job in Japan in spite of the discrimination from which she suffered and the uncertainty she faced. She serves as a beacon of hope for minorities who have few opportunities and are subject to discrimination, gradually dismantling stereotypes from which these minorities often suffer.

Phuong’s story serves as a silver lining at a time when differences lead to division. The purpose of her story is not to find faults in the Japanese government (although there are many), but to consider the role of refugees in Japanese society and challenge the responsibilities (or the lack thereof) of governments in supporting them. The Japanese government, with all of its power and resources, should assume its global responsibility by providing a home for refugee applicants. In just a few decades, Japan became an economic powerhouse and a member of the G7 and a benefactor to many member states of the United Nations, to which it was ratified in 1954. However, its rapid growth is now beginning to stagger. Japan is capable of change, and will benefit from it, too. Phuong proves this. The Japanese government and society should consider not whether it can or will accept refugees, but why and how it will do so.


Marina Yoshimura is a senior at the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University in Japan. She was a visiting international student at Yale during the 2017-2018 school year.