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Japan flies in 20 Ukrainian refugees to show support amid Russian invasion

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The Japanese government flew 20 Ukrainian refugees into Tokyo on Tuesday in a high-profile show of support for international efforts to help Ukraine, an unusually warm welcome from a country that has long been reluctant to accept foreigners.

The 20, ranging in age from 6 to 66, are not the first Ukrainians to arrive since Russia invaded their country on February 24 but they were the first to come on a special government plane on a trip arranged by Japan's foreign minister.

“The government of Japan is committed to provide the maximum support to these 20 Ukrainians to help them live with a sense of peace in Japan,” the minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, said in Poland shortly before he and the refugees set off for Japan.

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Hayashi, who had been in Poland assessing the refugee situation, arrived in Tokyo on a separate flight shortly before the 20 landed.

National broadcaster NHK televised their arrival live.

The 20 join about 400 other Ukrainian refugees already in Japan. Officials have not said if Japan will lay on more special flights or how many refugees might be allowed in.

Ethnically homogeneous Japan has long been wary of migrants despite an aging population and labor shortage but opinion polls show nearly 90 percent of people support taking in Ukrainian refugees and aid groups say the government has moved with unprecedented speed to help.

Cities have offered accommodation, companies have promised jobs and financial help and some citizens have offered rooms in their homes.

In 2020, Japan recognized only 47 refugees and admitted another 44 for “humanitarian reasons” - less than 1 percent of total applicants.

Public response

Staunch US ally Japan has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and applied various sanctions though it has not given up stakes in Russian gas projects.

The fact that the aggressor in Ukraine is Russia, with which Japan has a long-standing dispute over remote islands, means the issue resonates both with the public and politicians in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s conservative party, analysts and refugee advocates say.

Russia’s unprovoked attack on a peaceful neighbor is also an uncomfortable reminder for Japan of circumstances in its neighborhood, said Corey Wallace, a professor at Kanagawa University.

“In Japan’s situation, you’ve got very peaceful Japan and then you’ve got this big hegemonic overbearing power - China - that could upset the enjoyment of peace,” he said.

The welcome also appears to be, at least in part, because the Ukrainians are from Europe, refugee advocates say.

“Many callers say they'll only help Ukrainians. Some mention their race or say ‘refugees from other countries are a bit dangerous’,” said Ayako Niijima, of the Japan Association for Refugees, referring to telephone calls from the public offering help.

There was no such public response last year for refugees from Afghanistan or Myanmar, she added.

Tuesday's flight helps Kishida, who faces an important upper house of parliament election in June, look decisive in the eyes of foreign allies and voters, said Airo Hino, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University.

“They want to showcase what Japan is doing - something that makes a nice picture,” he said.

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