Is it enough to do no wrong? Japan’s actions towards refugees

By Rebecca Simms

Shibuya, Tokyo.

There is a difference between passive goodness and active goodness, which is, in my opinion, the giving of one’s time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering. It entails giving out, finding out, and helping those, who are suffering and in danger, and, not merely in leading an exemplary life in a purely passive way by doing no wrong.

These words came from a man named Nicholas Winton, who became known as the “British Schindler” for saving hundreds of Czech Jewish children from Nazi persecution in the run-up to World War Two. Today the world is facing its highest number of refugees since the end of the War and as such, this statement remains as important today as it did back then.
It is easy for most people to identify the current refugee producing nations; Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia saturate our headlines and dominate discussion. However less is said about refugee hosting nations, especially those that fall outside of Europe. You will notice that the Asian continent is where the majority of the world’s refugees originate and are hosted and it is the less wealthy nations that have borne the brunt. Although Turkey currently hosts 2.5 million, Pakistan hosts 1.6 million and Lebanon hosts 1.1 million, they rarely get mentioned.

Looking at one of the most developed nations in the Asian continent we find quite a different story; in 2015 Japan accepted only 27 refugees, rejecting 99% of applications. Since 1982, the nation opened its doors to just 633 of the 22,559 people who sought asylum in its borders. Yet Japan is not often mentioned in the discussion. This silence is telling. Considering the words of Nicholas Winton, we are forced to question what type of ‘goodness’ prevails in Japan; a nation known for its economic success and its peaceful people yet, when considering these numbers, is it a nation that turns its back on those most in need?

It is important to question why such a wealthy and developed nation actively chooses to close its doors to some of those most impoverished. To tackle this we must recognise that Japan is not a passive bystander when it comes to the global refugee crisis. It is one of the largest aid donors in the world, second only to the USA. In his statement at the Leader’s Summit on Refugees United Nations Trusteeship Council Chamber in September this year, Mr. Shinzo Abe Prime Minister of Japan stated that Japan would provide 2.8 billion US dollars over the next two years for humanitarian and self-reliance assistance to refugees and migrants, and assistance to host countries and communities.

In terms of hosting refugees we are witness to quite a different picture. A study by Oxfam calculated that for Japan to accept its fair share of Syrian refugees it would need to host 49,768. As Japan signed the 1951 Refugee U.N. Convention, one of only 26 (out of 51) Asian nations to do so, it is obligated to give protection to refugees. Although Japan is receiving an increasing number of asylum applications, due not only to the rise of conflicts but also due to the relative ease of obtaining a visa to enter Japan in comparison to its European counterparts, over the past few years it has gone from accepting 6 refugees in 2013 to 27 in 2015. When discussing the hosting of Syrian refugees, Abe said that Japan “will accept up to 150 Syrian students in the coming five years starting next year.” Although this increase can be seen as a positive sign, when we consider Japan has the third biggest economy in the world and countries such as Germany have accepted more than 300,000 Syrian asylum seekers since 2013, Japan’s numbers are stiflingly small.

Part of the explanation can be found in Japan’s narrow interpretation of the Refugee Convention. Japan’s Refugee Recognition Act does not include war refugees and therefore, by its own definition, the nation is not obligated to protect those fleeing from Syria. On a different note, Japan’s homogenous society in which 98% of the nation is Japanese and its almost closed door immigration policies greatly affects its attitude towards refugees. Such an attitude is often discussed when considering Japan’s severely aging population and low birth rate. Many have suggested a relaxation of its immigration laws could counteract the associated domestic challenges this brings. Yet, in response to such discussions Abe responded that “before accepting immigrants or refugees, we need to have more activities by women, elderly people and we must raise our birth rate. There are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants.”

I’m sure we all agree that every nation has numerous internal challenges that it must deal with, and of course, prioritise. Nonetheless, as we become ever more connected and globalised, passive actions towards helping others outside of our borders who are in need often does not suffice. Let us finish by asking ourselves whether the huge amount of money Japan contributes to the problems facing refugees is indeed ‘active goodness’? Or does Japan, along with many other developed nations, suffer from ‘passive goodness’ and in essence, look the other way? Japan certainly does lead an exemplary life but to what extent does it actively help those who are suffering and in danger and is it enough to do so in a purely passive way by doing no wrong?


About the author:

Rebecca Simms is a Rotary Peace Fellow, having recently graduated top of her class with an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies. Her international experience spans across almost all continents; having worked at government and NGO level leading and coordinating projects focused on women’s and youth empowerment, food security and education. She enjoys training capoeira and practicing yoga in her spare time. Find her on LinkedIn


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Human Nations and any of its campaigns and projects.

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