Japan’s diplomacy to vulnerable publics at home and abroad

The focus on Syria may carry with it a bitter memory for many Japanese

Nancy Snow
Nancy Snow
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
8 min read

Last year, 5,000 people applied for refugee status in Japan. 11 were accepted.

This past March, the Economist ran a headline, “No entry: As the world’s refugee problem grows, Japan pulls up the drawbridge.” The article included an image of the red circle (Rising Sun) that is the flag symbol of Japan with a white bar through it, the symbol for “Do Not Enter” signs in Europe.

That same month, Tokyo lawyer Hiroshi Miyauchi filed a lawsuit on behalf of four Syrian men against Japan’s Ministry of Justice, seeking to oblige the Japanese government to approve the men’s applications for refugee status, arguing that the rejection of 61 applications filed by Syrian refugees since 2011 is “appalling.” The four had been granted “special permission to stay,” but had been denied refugee status.

In September, The Washington Post weighed in with an article headlined, “As Europe makes room for refugees, some in Japan ask why not us?”

Japan is a strong target for refugee criticism because of its modest engagement in social media and global communications. Typically, it doesn’t proactively make its case to the world, largely allowing the international press and the Twitterverse to frame its issues for it.

The Washington Post article, comparing the refugee response of Europe to Japan’s closed doors, quotes heavily from Twitter messages that argue for opening the doors to refugees in Japan, including @robotopia, who wrote, “It's insane that Japan, which has enough abandoned homes to house all Syrian #refugees TWICE over, took in only 11 asylum seekers in 2014.” The comment sparked a debate, including from me (@drpersuasion) about the feasibility to open abandoned houses in rural areas of Japan to refugees from Syria. @GoodandbadJapan responded, “But they don’t speak Japanese and might put the rubbish out on the wrong day.”

Advocates in Japan and foreign media have rightly called this discrepancy outrageous. But does Japan really have the capacity to accept large numbers of refugees on the same level as other developed nations?

The focus on Syria may carry with it a bitter memory for many Japanese

Nancy Snow

Japan doesn’t have the social infrastructure to accept large numbers of refugees, even though refugees are able to work in Japan. It might be very difficult for adults and their children who didn’t speak the language to find a place at school or in the workplace. Unlike Western countries that have a history of immigration, most Japanese businesses and schools don’t have a support system in place. That could cause conflict with refugees feeling marginalized, which, in turn, may cause Japanese citizens to become opposed to accepting future refugees.

Accepting refugees to Japan is not unprecedented, just very limited. Japan accepted over 11,000 Indo-Chinese refugees (1978-2005) fleeing the Vietnam conflict. Japan was the first Asian country in 2010 to participate in UNHCR’s resettlement program, a pilot program to bring 90 Myanmar refugees from Thailand over the course of three years. Other than Myanmar and the Indo-Chinese, the Japanese government doesn’t have much experience in targeting a specific group for refugees to come to Japan, especially from a vastly different culture. Japan has recognized 577 refugees (1982-2010) under the 1981 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1982 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

The Cinderella and the Evil Stepmom

Where Japan shines is in providing assistance as a leading humanitarian nation. It is a top Official Development Assistance (ODA) country, just below the U.S., UK, and Germany. International aid ostensibly greatly improves the lives of refugees. But because Japan is not a top host nation for refugees, it is vulnerable to critical global media stories singling it out as a rich country that takes in the least refugees. In contrast, Germany is celebrated for opening arms wide to take in up to half a million refugees. Germany may be facing incredible burdens from this population infusion, but its liberal refugee policy blowback may take years.

Germany was the Cinderella of the refugee crisis and Japan the Evil Stepmom before Abe’s address to the United Nations on September 29. Abe announced a tripling of the budget from last year to $810 million in assistance to refugees and internally displaced people in Syria and Iraq. He also announced $750 million “to help build peace and fully ensure this peace across the Middle East and Africa.” But that is what Japan is doing “over there” and Japan may still be subjected to criticism for not taking in the most vulnerable publics fleeing conflict.

The refugee criticism of Japan risked threatening an image that Japanese leaders have attempted to cultivate in developing nation brand Japan as a compassionate leader in the world. One of Japan’s most honored citizens, Madame Sadako Ogata, high commissioner of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees for a decade (1991-2000), remains one of the country’s most honored citizens. At age 88, she remains president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a Tokyo-based developmental organization which works to alleviate poverty, as one mission.

The focus on Syria may carry with it a bitter memory for many Japanese. This past January, Prime Minister Abe announced a $100 million donation to help the countries of the Middle East fighting ISIS inside their borders. Within a few days, Muslim militants with ISIS beheaded Kenji Goto, a journalist, and Haruna Yukawa, the Japanese hostage that Goto had gone to Syria to attempt to rescue. At the time, public opinion in Japan supported Abe and many wondered, with bewilderment, why Goto left his wife and new baby in Tokyo to go to Syria. The propaganda images of both men in orange jumpsuits, to mimic the uniforms prisoners wear in Guantanamo, being beheaded, shocked much of the nation.

A better case for Japan outside of increasing international support is to perhaps sponsor another pilot program, a group of child refugees to be placed here with their families to receive free education. Imagine if these young people were able to grow up in the K-12 system, attend university and become citizen ambassadors for their refuge nation. It would be difficult to learn the language and to adjust to Japanese society, but not impossible, and given the alternatives of war and strife, it would be an excellent public diplomacy gesture on the part of a government that has recently lost political capital over its collective security bills.

This more recent bitter memory cannot be ignored. While Mr. Abe’s tripling of humanitarian assistance for refugees and internally displaced people in Syria and Iraq is notable, what cannot be ignored is Japan’s continuing identity crisis and a native population of internally displeased people who were greatly opposed to the collective security measures passed just after midnight on 19 September. Abe’s U.N. speech made passing reference to the collective security measures that were couched by a brawl in the Diet and hundreds of thousands who took to the streets. He framed the security summer of our discontent as a picture postcard contribution “to peacekeeping operations.” This part of his U.N. speech may become as frequently cited as his positive public relations surrounding doing more for the most vulnerable publics.

Nancy Snow (Ph.D., International Relations) is releasing a book, Awkward Embrace, on Japan’s efforts to engage with the world. In spring 2016, Snow will begin teaching as Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Studies. She can be reached at @drpersuasion.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending