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Japan has taken in hundreds of Ukrainians. The welcome for others has been less warm

A Japanese language class for Ukrainian refugees in Yokohama on June 29.
Anthony Kuhn
/
NPR
A Japanese language class for Ukrainian refugees in Yokohama on June 29.

YOKOHAMA, Japan — A dozen Ukrainian students sit in a classroom, studying basic Japanese to help them navigate life in a new country. Among them is Sergei Litvinov, a 29-year-old trained chef, who arrived in June. He says he's been listening to Japanese rock music since his teen years.

Coming to Japan is "a dream come true," he says with a laugh. "But I'm not happy, because it's a terrible story in Ukraine."

Litvinov is one of nearly 2,000 Ukrainians admitted to Japan on a temporary basis since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, according to Japan's justice ministry.

The Ukrainians have been met with an outpouring of sympathy and hospitality in the country. "It was the first time I've gotten so many phone calls and emails from society, wanting to assist the refugees from Ukraine," says Kazuko Fushimi, who handles public relations at the Tokyo-based Japan Association for Refugees.

But the warm welcome Japan has given the Ukrainians contrasts with how it has treated other foreigners fleeing conflict and persecution over the years, say human rights groups. Of 169 Afghans who fled to Japan after the Taliban took over in August 2021, 58 went back to Afghanistan "due to what they say was pressure and a lack of support from the Japanese Foreign Ministry," Japan's Kyodo news service reported last month.

For now, the Japanese government has given the Ukrainians residency and work permits lasting up to a year. But for those from other countries, it's often a years-long struggle to attain similar benefits and privileges.

The central government has provided visas and work permits. Local governments have provided food, housing and living allowances.

Ukrainian refugees arrive at Haneda airport in Tokyo on April 5.
Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
/
Reuters
Ukrainian refugees arrive at Haneda airport in Tokyo on April 5.

Litvinov is one of a group of 70 Ukrainians sent to the port city of Yokohama – 17 miles from the Japanese capital Tokyo — where local authorities are providing for temporary accommodation, food and living expenses.

Significantly, Japan is not calling the Ukrainians refugees, but "evacuees." That is because Tokyo expects them all to go home eventually.

Historically, Japan accepts very few refugees. Last year, it granted just 74 applicants refugee status — the highest number ever, but less than 1% of the total who applied, according to the Japan Association for Refugees.

Some in Japan see their country as mono-ethnic — not a nation of immigrants. But the idea is a matter of debate.

Human rights groups and refugee advocates say the system is deliberately designed to set a high bar for successful refugee applications. Refugees applying for asylum in Japan must demonstrate they face life-threatening persecution at home.

Heydar Safari Diman has been trying to do just that for more than 30 years, since fleeing from Iran to Japan, which he became interested in through watching TV dramas and movies, including the films of director Akira Kurosawa. He does not want to say exactly what persecution he faced in Iran, because he fears it could jeopardize family members still in the country.

But authorities have repeatedly rejected his bids for refugee status. They detained him for a total of more than four years without any explanation, he says, in what he calls hellish conditions.

"I like Japan and Japanese people, but I hate the ones in the detention center," he says, speaking fluent Japanese. "How could they bully us like that? What did we do? We are refugees. I have no criminal record."

In 2019, Safari Diman was one of about 100 detainees who went on hunger strikes to protest their detention. Safari Diman says he sank into deep depression and thought about ending his own life.

"You need a lot of courage to commit suicide. It's very difficult to kill yourself in there. And I did not have that courage," he says.

Tokyo-based attorney Chie Komai, who represents Safari Diman and others seeking to stay in Japan, took his case to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in 2019. She argued that her client's detention was arbitrary because Japanese immigration authorities can detain foreigners indefinitely, without any judicial review.

The U.N. working group agreed with her. "They made it clear that the Japanese immigration detention system is in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

The Japanese government objected to the U.N. working group's findings, saying they were "based on factual errors" and disputing that its detentions were arbitrary. But it did not dispute the details of Safari Diman's case. He is now out on what is called "provisional release," and has not been detained since the ruling.

Safari Diman, who's subsisted in Japan on donations from friends and supporters, says he does not expect the sort of benefits the Ukrainians are getting.

"I'm not asking for Japanese taxpayers to support me," he says. "If authorities recognize me as a refugee, I will work and pay taxes."

Other cases have also fueled debate over Japan's treatment of refugees. They include the death in an immigration detention center last year of 33-year-old Sri Lankan Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali, detained for overstaying her visa.

Prosecutors dropped charges against immigration officials accused of responsibility for her death.

In another case, last month a Japanese court ordered the government to compensate the family of a 43-year-old Cameroonian man who died in an immigration detention center in 2014.

The public outcry over deaths in immigration detention centers appears to have prompted the government to drop controversial amendments to immigration laws. The amendments would have made it easier for the government to deport foreigners whose bids for refugee status had failed.

Poorima Sandamali carries a picture of her sister, Wishma Sandamali, a Sri Lankan woman who died while in Japanese immigration detention in 2021, as she walks to the Nagoya district court to file a lawsuit against the government of Japan on March 4.
/ JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images
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JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images
Poorima Sandamali carries a picture of her sister, Wishma Sandamali, a Sri Lankan woman who died while in Japanese immigration detention in 2021, as she walks to the Nagoya district court to file a lawsuit against the government of Japan on March 4.

Japan's government says it will extend financial assistance to the Ukrainians for an additional six months. The double standard is not lost on officials like Kazuhiro Suzuki, a Yokohama city official who is involved in running the program for Ukrainians.

"We've only been supporting the Ukrainian evacuees," he says, observing the students from a corner of the classroom. "While the situation of refugees from other countries hasn't changed."

He adds: "Every day we keep working, but this discrepancy bothers us."

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Yokohama.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.