Now, as a torrent of refugees flows out of the Middle East and into Europe, many people are wondering why rich Persian Gulf nations and the United States are not doing more to help. And some in Japan are also wondering if the country should be doing more than giving money.
After all, Japan has offered zero resettlement places for refugees from Syria, according to Amnesty International, although the Japan Association for Refugees says three were granted refugee status in 2013.
Either way, there have been mounting calls here for a more inclusive policy.
"There are things Japan can do," the Mainichi Shimbun, a left-leaning Japanese paper, wrote in an editorial on Tuesday, adding that Tokyo could be more actively supporting the countries that are taking in Syrian refugees, especially Turkey and Jordan.
"Japan is called 'a country with a closed-door for refugees.' We should change this closed nature and consider accepting refugees from conflict zones proactively," the paper said. "Figuring out how to tackle this humanitarian crisis is not an issue only for Europe."
On Twitter, Yasunori Kawakami, a former Middle East correspondent for Asahi Shimbun who now freelances from Egypt, has been encouraging his compatriots to open their doors -- and their minds -- to Syrian refugees.
While Japan can't solve the problem, it can help ease the despair felt by some Middle East youth, he said.
"The root of this despair comes from them feeling completely isolated. The world is turning their back on them. Is it okay for Japan to continues to turn its back on them too?" he asked.
In another tweet, he said that the Syrian children who had died trying to get across the Mediterranean were just Arab versions of Chibi Maruko-chan and Kureyon Shin-chan, Japanese anime characters who are also popular in the Middle East.
"Japan needs to sympathize with those children who became refugees," he wrote. "Japan has been asking for empathy for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after all,” he said, referring to the cities devastated by atomic bombs at the end of World War II.
Late Tuesday, Yasuhisa Kawamura, spokesman for the Japanese foreign ministry, said in a statement that “Japan, in collaboration with the international community including the United Nations, will consider what it can contribute” in response to requests for assistance.
Here’s his full statement:
"Japan has been fully aware that the deterioration in the situations in the Middle East and North Africa has caused a large number of refugees and many lives were lost in their dangerous journey, and the international organizations such as UNHCR and Europe have been making their efforts for the protection and acceptance of these refugees.... As for the current situation, several international organizations have been requesting assistance to the international community. Japan, in collaboration with the international community including the United Nations, will consider what it can contribute in response to these requests."
According to the Amnesty report, Japan is not alone among high income countries in not taking in refugees from Syria. It noted that Russia, Singapore and South Korea were also in the zero resettlement club.
But Japan, which has gone to great lengths to rehabilitate its image since World War II, prides itself on being a good global citizen. It is one of the largest aid donors in the world. Last year Japan gave $181.6 million to the UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, making it second only to the United States in generosity.
When it comes to putting its mouth where its money is, however, Japan is not doing well. It accepted just 11 asylum seekers out of a record 5,000 applications last year, according to Ministry of Justice data, giving Japan a refugee recognition rate of just 0.2 percent, one of the lowest among industrialized economies.
"The low recognition rate is shameful," immigration lawyer Shogo Watanabe told Reuters when the statistics were released. But this was almost double the number taken in during 2013, when Japan accepted just six refugees, the lowest number in 15 years.
Others have called Japan’s acceptance rate was “miserly.” “Japan has done less than any other large democracy to alleviate the refugee crisis through granting asylum,” Japanese journalist Harada Kazuyoshi wrote on Nippon.com earlier this year.
Immigration is a touchy issue in Japan, an astonishingly homogeneous country where outsiders often remain “the other” – even if they’ve lived here for decades and speak perfect Japanese. That makes it a hard place for refugees to settle into.
Indeed, Gloria Okafor Ifeoma, a Nigerian asylum-seeker who arrived in Tokyo in 2007, told The Economist earlier this year that she had spent about 30 months under lock and key. Immigration officials give the impression that they just want refugees to leave, she said.
But Japan also faces a demographic time bomb – one that could be significantly eased by an influx of new people. With its rapidly aging population and paltry birth rate, Japan is getting smaller and grayer by the year.
Japan’s government estimates that the country’s population will shrink from the current 127 million to 95 million by 2050, and by that stage, 40 percent of Japanese will be over the age of 65. Who’s going to pay for their retirement and their health care?
And it’s not as if Japan doesn’t have the space. The New York Times recently reported that there are 8 million “ghost homes” in Japan already, as the population shrinks and people move to the cities. This phenomenon prompted one real estate expert to warn: “Tokyo could end up being surrounded by Detroits.”
As Tim Hornyak, a technology journalist in Japan, noted on Twitter:
But many in Japan, as in the United States, consider the Syrian refugee crisis to be a distant, European responsibility.
"I'm against accepting Syrian refugees," Nobuo Ikeda, a lecturer at Aoyama Gakuin University who runs Agora Web, an online opinion site for policy experts, wrote on Twitter. "Wars in Middle East are the result of British and French colonial rule and America overemphasizing its relationship with Israel. The only thing to be done is for them to apologize and atone for their sins."
Some are opposed to Japan taking in refugees on economic grounds. Although the Japanese economy appears to be emerging from two decades of deflation, growth remains weak and consumers remain skitterish.
"Immigrants can work and the tax burden on the state would be low," wrote Tomoaki Ueda, a Twitter user from Kyoto who uses the handle, @NeoTechLab. "But refugee status is just the same as being on welfare. And refugees need language and other help, so they'd be a big burden on Japanese people. That’s why it’s a problem."
Yuki Oda contributed to this post.