Japan's traditional reluctance to accept new waves of immigrants from abroad is undergoing a test as a growing number of Vietnamese refugees come drifting here in search of freedom and safety.
More than 1,100 refugees have found their way here through harrowing adventures at sea, and nearly 800 still live in limbo, temporary guests in makeshift homes improvised by religious organizations.
So far the japanese government has not provided any housing or direct assistance for the refugees and has not permitted them to take jobs offered by private companies.
Moreover, the religious organizations complain that Japan erected cumbersome obstacles that delay even temporary landing permission for the "boat people" and thereby discourage ships from picking up other refugees at sea.
The government promised last month to study ways of providing better accommodations and job training for the refugees and agreed to address the touchy issue of permanent resettlement. A special Cabinet council appointed to work on those issues is still being organized.
Japanese officials say that assimilating foreigners is a difficult task for their country.
"We don't know what to do with these people," said Hiroyuki Yushita, a Foreign Ministry official. "It will take time. The Japanese socity is a homogeneous soceity, and our living style is very difficult. Maybe we can accept them as guests, but how can they survive? It is not possible for them to accomodate very easily.
"Japan has never been a hospitable place for foreign immigrants. Koreans, with a population of about 600,000 and several thousand Chinese form the only sizable ethnic groups.
The difficult Japanese language and other cultural barriers have been formidable deterrents. Officials contend that Japan is already overcrowded and hardly able to support new immigrants, and they point out the sagging economy has already caused growing unemployments.
Most of the Vietnamese live in 29 scattered locations and are well cared for by Caritas Japan, the Catholic welfare organization, the Japan Red Cross, and a Buddhist group, Risho Koseikai. They also receive about $3.40 a day from a special United Nations fund.
The reaction of the Japanese people to the refugees has been mixed. Some objected strongly to having refugee camps established in their areas. The mayor of one small city complained that a camp would ruin his area's tourist business. In other locations, residents have offered food, clothing, medicine and even television sets to the newcomers.
Religious leaders have begged the government to provide a single large staging area where the refugees could be together while they await permission to go to another country. A Japanese official said the request is still underconsideration.
Judging from forms they fill out on their arrival, most of the refugees would prefer to go to another country. The United States and France, where many have relatives, are the first choices. Japan is occasionally listed as a third or fourth choice.
Most refugees arrived on freighters that rescued them on the high seas when their small crafts foundered or when their food and water ran out. Government regulations have not made it easy for them to be put ashore. A foreign ship cannot unload refugees here unless the country where it is owned has promised Japan it will accept them if no home is found for them here.
Some observers believe this policy has discouraged ship captains from lending assistance at sea. They contend the captains do not want to risk a costly delay in Japanese ports while the necessary guarantee is obtained from their home country.
One Catholic priest said that from interviews with his flock of Vietnamese refugees on Okinawa he determined that some ships were ignoring SOS calls from refugee boats. One group told him that three freighters stopped to give them food and water, but refused to take them abroad for the remaining journey to Japan.
The Foreign Ministry's Yushita disputed charges that Japan has taken an unusually hard position to discourage more refugees from coming here.
For one thing, he said, Japan has guaranteed other countries that it will receive refugees landing in their ports. This encourages Japanese ships to pick up the "boat people" because captains are assured they will not be tied up for long periods in foreign ports, he said.
Some other countries do not make such guarantees, he said. He cited groups of about 40 refugees picked up by ships from Malaysia, Greece and Liberia, countries that would not guarantee their responsibility. Denied permission to unload the refugees in Japanese ports, the ships finally unloaded them in Hong Kong and Africa, he said.
He also said that Japan recently had flown back from Singapore a large group of refugees brought there by a Japanese ship. Singapore would not let refugees unload even temporarily, he said.
The Japanese Cabinet committee has indicated that it will be some time before new facilities are provided for the refugees already here. One official, Tadamasa Kuroki, acknowledged that housing was the most "urgent problem" and said the government hoped to provide a single home for about 300 persons expected to arrive in the coming weeks. No decisions have been made, however.
"We are thinking and discussing," he said.
Vocational training for the refugees is in a similar discussion stage. "First we must find out what they would like," he said.
The committee will also consider the long-range issue of permanent resettlement, Kuroki said.
"We cannot neglect that, and it is being discussed bu our council," he added. "I do not expect a quick decision."