Japan has never been famous for its acceptance of foreigners – and this insularity shows in its refugee policy. While no one can find fault with Japan’s financial generosity in support of refugees, its acceptance of only 11 candidates out of about 5,000 asylum applications in 2014 is nothing to be proud of.
Last year, Japan gave $181.6 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee agency, making it the second largest donor behind the United States. In the first half of this year, Japan has already given $167 million to the UNHCR, again, ranking second. Furthermore, back in January, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Egypt, he pledged $200 million in aid specifically for refugees from Iraq and Syria displaced by the rise of the Islamic State (IS).
However, generous financial action has not translated to a welcome for refugees. Japan is aware of the refugee crisis swamping Europe, with the UNHCR expecting at least 850,000 people to be displaced by the Syrian civil war this year. In response, Yasuhisa Kawamura, spokesperson for the Japanese foreign ministry, said in a statement: “Japan, in collaboration with the international community including the United Nations, will consider what it can contribute in response …” It appears that Japan stands ready to dole out more cash – but not ready to accept more refugees .
In fact, Japan’s Ministry of Justice is considering changes that could potentially make it harder for applicants to seek asylum in Japan. These proposed changes would deal more strictly with individuals who apply because they want to continue working in Japan, rather than because of persecution back home. Measures include deporting failed applicants, curbs on repeat applications, and pre-screening new asylum seekers. UNHCR, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, and activists criticize the proposals for not providing enough protection for potential refugees and making it even harder for potential refugees to be granted recognition.
Currently, Japan recognizes as refugees those who fear persecution in their home country due to ethnic, religious, or political reasons. Fear of physical abuse may become a legitimate reason to be granted asylum status. But those who are fleeing conflict will continue to not be recognized, according to Sato.
Perhaps the greatest irony in all this is that Japan actually needs more people. Of course, refugees are not the world’s top-earning migrants, but at the end of the day , Japan is simply going to need more labor. Taking a lead in addressing the refugee crisis – and resettling them in Japan – will undoubtedly be difficult. Financially, Japan still struggles to recover from decades of deflation, and bureaucratically, any functioning framework to accept and assimilate refugees into Japanese society would require more inventiveness than Japanese policymakers have demonstrated so far.
But beyond making demographic sense in the long-term, resettling refugees will also burnish Japan’s humanitarian credentials on the international stage, and could head off another round of criticisms about Japan’s “checkbook diplomacy.”