TOKYO — It sounds like a sadly familiar story. A plan for the family to stick out the war in Syria while the children finish their education — but then a missile strikes their home.
Jamal, 24, remembers running to the basement after the first explosion and hearing the horrifying sounds above. His younger sister went into shock, prompting his terrified mother to slap her. Like so many other Syrians, they decided they had to leave.
But Jamal and his sister and mother didn’t follow other Syrians to Europe or North America. Instead, after a brief stay in Egypt, they flew to Japan in October 2013. The next year, they were granted refugee status.
In their new home, that makes them an oddity. According to recent figures from the Japanese Ministry of Justice, as of 2015, only six Syrians have been accepted as refugees in the country. Jamal’s family — who asked not to be fully identified, because of concerns about relatives in Syria — make up half that number.
The situation isn’t much better for refugees from other nations. Last year, Japan received a record 7,586 applications for refugee status. Just 27 were granted.
This unusual situation has helped make Jamal’s a sought-after voice. He’s frequently interviewed by Japanese reporters and gives lectures to students about his experiences. “I always start my presentations talking about Syria,” he said recently over coffee in the suburbs of Tokyo, “because most Japanese people think that it is just a desert or something.”
To be fair, back in Syria there was a lot Jamal didn’t know about Japan, either. His closest interaction with Japanese culture came through anime, which he watched online with Arabic subtitles.
Jamal’s family had planned to head to Sweden, where a cousin was living. But the Swedish visa was denied, and an uncle who was married to a Japanese woman helped them get to Japan instead.
Tokyo was overwhelming. Jamal’s family didn’t speak the language or understand the culture. Tensions soon boiled over in his uncle’s house, so they moved out. Not yet able to work legally, Jamal found sketchy, sometimes dangerous demolition jobs. After a nail went through his foot, he got tetanus and spent a week in the hospital.
“It was the worst period in my life,” he said. Later, he worked 15 hours a day, six days a week, at a burger chain. By then he was legally able to work, but it was still grueling; the commute took an additional hour and a half.
He eventually found a job teaching English to kindergarten-age children. After the family’s refugee status was approved, he began taking full-time language lessons, and he now speaks Japanese at a conversational level. He has made friends through soccer, playing for two local clubs. Like his Japanese teammates, Jamal heads out to the izakayas for post-match beer and food — though the beer is alcohol-free and he avoids pork because of his faith. He attends Friday prayer at Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in Japan.
Japan isn’t used to outsiders. Less than 2 percent of the population was born in a foreign country.
As the Syrian crisis got worse, Tokyo stepped up its donations to UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. In 2014, it gave $181.6 million, making it the second-largest donor after the United States.
But it balked at taking in refugees. Last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that the country needed to look after its own. While other wealthy nations have resettled thousands of Syrians from refugee camps in the Middle East, Japan has not offered a single resettlement place.
Only a small number of Syrians are in the country — around 500, according to the Japan Association for Refugees, one of a handful of groups that work with refugees in the country. Most arrange temporary visitor visas through friends and acquaintances to allow entry to the country. Some visitors apply for refugee status, though the vast majority of the requests are denied.
This has put Japan at odds with the U.N. refugee agency, which generally considers all Syrians to be eligible for refugee status. In a recent interview, Yasuhiro Hishida, assistant to the director of Japan’s Refugee Status Recognition Office, noted that almost all Syrians are allowed to temporarily stay in Japan for humanitarian reasons, even if they are not granted refugee status.
Jamal could not explain why his family was the exception.
He said he understands Japan’s apprehension about refugees, to an extent. Friends who have ended up in Germany have told him about dangerous Syrians they’ve met in the country. “If you are at home,” he said, “and somebody knocks your door and says, ‘I want to come in,’ you wouldn’t let him come, right? You need to know him.”
But Japan should still do more than it’s doing now, Jamal said. “If, for example, they accepted all the Syrians who are living here — 500 or so — it wouldn’t have such a big impact, because they are separated in each prefecture.”
Yet a recent survey conducted by Ipsos MORI found that just 18 percent of Japanese believed that refugee integration could be a success, while 46 percent disagreed.
Jamal said that the polite nature of Japanese society shields him from verbal or physical abuse. In comments on YouTube videos of his media appearances or lectures, however, Japanese users accuse him, sometimes in unprintably vulgar terms, of being a terrorist or stealing taxpayers’ money.
Even so, that same Ipsos MORI poll found that 37 percent of the respondents said they didn’t know how Japan should respond to refugees, by far the largest proportion of any of the 22 countries polled.
“It seems that people see it as a fire on the other side of the shore, so to speak,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, a former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau. “There are no huge voices over here saying we should accept refugees or not in Japan.”
Sakanaka now runs the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, a rare pro-immigration voice in Japan. He has argued that Japan should accept 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years, with perhaps as many as 500,000 refugees. That position puts him at the fringes of mainstream debate in Japan. Yet Sakanaka said he does see a shift in that debate. He pointed to the announcement by Abe’s government in May that it would allow 150 Syrian students to continue their education in Japan. These Syrians will not be considered refugees, but they may be able to apply for refugee status once they arrive.
“It’s an embarrassingly small number, but at the same time it’s one outstanding step,” he said.
Jamal hopes to return to his studies next year and wants to find a career as a translator. His aim is to become fluent in three languages. His sister attends Japanese high school and speaks the language fluently, while his mother has been working at Uniqlo and has learned enough of the language to get by. Jamal’s father has been able to join them, although he has not received refugee status.
While his parents bitterly miss Syria, Jamal said he can’t imagine leaving Japan. “I’ve started here, so I can’t go start from zero again in another country,” he said. “I’ll build my future here.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.