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Japan has always been refugee-averse. Then Ukraine happened.

Ukrainians who have fled the war in their country arrive at Tokyo's Haneda Airport on April 5. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

TOKYO — Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, refugee-averse Japan has accepted more than 1,300 people fleeing the conflict and provided social services to help them assimilate — a rare and surprising move that could mark a turning point for the country’s long-standing restrictions on those fleeing violence and persecution.

Since Japan’s prime minister formally announced the change on March 2 — just days after the invasion — the country has welcomed not only Ukrainians with relatives or acquaintances in Japan, but also anyone seeking shelter because of the conflict. Government agencies have been uncharacteristically generous in providing allowances, mental health support, language classes and housing to help Ukrainians adjust to their new lives.

Now, refugee groups are wondering whether this swift response could serve as a model for future humanitarian crises and conflicts. Japan, one of the world’s richest countries, has some of the most restrictive policies toward refugees and asylum seekers. According to the Vatican’s refugee website, Japan has the lowest asylum-intake ratio in the developed world.

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“We feel that the current situation could potentially become a turning point for the future acceptance of refugees,” said Eri Ishikawa, board chair of the Japan Association for Refugees. “We hope that the government will take into consideration the public’s heightened interest in accepting refugees and that they quickly proceed to fundamentally review the entire system.”

The conflict has triggered a dramatic response by Japan, amid concerns that Russia’s invasion could embolden China’s growing military assertiveness in the region. There is also broad public support for Ukrainians — which is unusual given the tepid Japanese interest in other crises that triggered an outflow of refugees, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the military coup in Myanmar and the Syrian war.

But this time, Japan has gotten around restrictive laws that narrowly define “refugee” by labeling Ukrainians as “evacuees.”

Of the 1,316 Ukrainians who have entered Japan since March 2, the biggest share, 236 of them, have gone to Tokyo, the largest prefecture and the nation’s capital, according to the Immigration Services Agency. Tokyo’s services include a help desk; free temporary housing and long-term public housing with free utilities; discounts for public transportation; and language support.

Since 1982, when Japan enacted its laws to accept refugees, 87,892 people have applied for refugee status, and just 915 have been accepted, according to the immigration agency. In 2021, Japan granted 74 applicants refugee status.

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Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said there was momentum coming off the summer 2021 Tokyo Olympics, with its emphasis on human rights and the inclusion of marginalized communities, including refugees. The dramatic evacuation to Japan of two Afghan Paralympians who fled Kabul amid the Taliban takeover in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal also helped raise awareness about the plight of refugees.

“The invasion by Russia this time hit the people of Japan very strongly, especially with such vivid information reaching people directly, which strengthened people’s feelings to accept the evacuees,” Koike said in an interview.

While Koike said the public mood has become more open to such efforts to aid foreigners, she stopped short of saying it was a sign of lasting change. “We must follow the national government’s decisions and framework, so as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, we would like to closely watch how the government will make any changes [in accepting more refugees in the long term].”

It remains unclear whether the national government will take meaningful steps toward revising refugee laws. In April, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan would consider a “quasi-refugee system” to accommodate certain evacuees, including Ukrainians.

There is some indication that the public would back an expansion of support. In a March survey by the Nippon Research Center, 51.9 percent said the acceptance of refugees should be increased, up from findings in 2020, when respondents were more wary of such a move.

But life in Japan is difficult even for those who are granted refugee or asylum status under cumbersome and often opaque immigration laws. The lengthy review process has led to applications pending for an average of four years, advocates say, with limited to no government subsidies or the ability to work. During that time, migrants can be detained and subjected to inhumane treatment at detention centers, at times resulting in harrowing cases of violence and even death.

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The Japan Association for Refugees helps more than 300 people per year applying for refugee status, the majority of whom are from Africa. In 2021, just six people fleeing Africa were accepted as refugees, and many continue to live in poverty without residency status and no clear way of obtaining employment and housing in Japan, said Ishikawa, the board chair. The organization is funded mostly by donations, but it has not seen much of an uptick in financial support since the Ukraine crisis.

A group called Japanese Supports for Ukrainian Students, comprising nearly 100 language schools throughout Japan, has provided free classes and raised money to help offset expenses and travel costs. There are about 800 language schools in Japan, and previously, only about five have helped refugees.

Norito Hiraoka, principal at the Seifu Institute of Information Technology, one of the participating schools, said the effort has been possible because of the uniqueness of the conflict. In particular, the threat of nuclear weapons by Russian President Vladimir Putin has sparked fear in Japan, the only country to experience the devastation of a nuclear attack.

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“I don’t really think that this will be a turning point. The extraordinary support that we are seeing is because it was Ukraine,” Hiraoka said. “I find it hard to imagine that there will be the same kind of outpouring of support if another tragedy unfolds overseas.”

But other groups are hopeful that they are laying the groundwork for change. For example, the Japanese Organization of Mental Health and Educational Agencies is recruiting Japanese volunteers, including university students, counselors and athletes, and extolling the importance of supporting those who are experiencing the traumas of war and other conflicts.

Last month, the organization launched a Ukraine Interaction Center to help families, especially with young children. At a recent event, Japanese volunteers taught Ukrainian evacuees how to make sushi, and the evacuees showed the volunteers how to cook Ukrainian dishes and make embroidery art.

“I hope that this can become a turning point. If the Ukrainians who come to Japan can settle well and create a real community here, through communication and interactions with them, I think the feelings of the Japanese people will change,” said Mariko Ukiyo, the organization’s director.