Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2017, 11:55 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Japan

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Japan , 1 January 1999, available at: [accessed 14 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

At the end of 1998, more than 500 refugees and asylum seekers were in Japan. This included 127 refugees resettled from overseas (of which 122 were Vietnamese and 5 were Cambodian), 16 persons granted asylum, individuals in 117 pending asylum cases, and an estimated 250 persons granted special resident status because of refugee-like humanitarian concerns. Japan receives the fewest refugees of all industrialized countries but continued to be a major contributor to UNHCR despite the continuing economic crisis in Asia.

Japan hosted 18 refugees recognized under UNHCR's mandate. Two screened-out (non-refugee) Vietnamese were repatriated from Japan in 1998 under the Orderly Return Program (ORP). No screened-out Vietnamese remained in Japan at year's end.

Five mandate refugees of other nationalities also were in Japan at the end of the year.

At the beginning of 1998, 332 applications for asylum were pending with the Japanese government. Another 133 persons applied for asylum during the year. The justice ministry adjudicated 308 applications, approving 15 (5 percent) in the first instance (with one case approved on appeal) and rejecting 293 (95 percent). Another 41 persons withdrew their cases.

Japan does not release information on the nationalities of persons who apply for or receive asylum. UNHCR reported that seven persons from the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) applied for asylum during the year. According to press reports, 1998 saw the first PRC national to apply for asylum in Japan on the basis of China's one-child-per-family policy. Although the woman was pregnant and had applied for asylum, she was held in detention for five months and tried as a criminal for entering Japan without documents. Japan eventually denied her application, noting that "childbirth cannot be the only purpose for coming to Japan illegally."

Japan also sought to avoid an influx of North Koreans fleeing famine and economic collapse. In August, Japan rejected the asylum claim of a North Korean who had arrived via China. Japanese officials claimed the man was Chinese, despite documentation to the contrary.

Japan said it increased its capacity to expedite the processing of asylum applications during 1998, enabling it to reduce the backlog. The government also noted that "some asylum seekers were allowed to stay in Japan with special resident status due to humanitarian concerns and other factors, even though their refugee status was rejected." The government did not release the number of these "special residents" but said it greatly exceeds that of ordinary refugees. UNHCR estimated this number at between two and three times the number of persons granted refugee status. These humanitarian visas were granted to Burmese, Sudanese, and others. The visa is renewable every year and allows the holder to work and travel freely in Japan.

Nevertheless, observers continued to criticize Japan for accepting so few refugees and asylum seekers. In December, The Japan Times noted that the government had accepted only 1,654 applications for asylum since 1982, approving only 225 in that 16-year period. From 1994 to 1997, only one or two persons were granted asylum per year.

During the year, Japan continued to implement 1997 amendments to its Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law. The changes were aimed at reducing undocumented immigration and curbing the smuggling of foreigners into Japan, particularly Chinese. The legislation permits detaining and deporting foreigners arriving at ports of entry, without screening them for refugee status.

In response to a USCR inquiry, the Japanese government said, "Under the Japanese legislation, the approval process for asylum seekers and for deportation are two different processes...[E]ven asylum seekers must be taken into detention houses or immigration centers as long as they are recognized as illegal residents in Japan. However, we examine each individual on a case-by-case basis, and take appropriate measures such as provisional release."

Provisional release does not protect asylum seekers from further detention. Undocumented immigrants on provisional release must appear at the immigration bureau once a month.

UNHCR said that Japan officially imposes a much less stringent approach to detention. As it explained, persons without proper documents were not detained upon claiming asylum.

The presence of asylum seekers in detention centers generally resulted from their having applied for asylum only after being arrested and detained for violating immigration laws. In addition, some asylum seekers were detained for committing "common crimes" (other than violating immigration laws).

Under this process, 25 asylum seekers and 3 persons recognized as refugees by UNHCR ("mandate refugees") were detained during 1998. By the end of the year, two mandate refugees and nine other persons of concern to UNHCR were still in detention (five of whom were detained for committing crimes).

Advocates have also criticized Japan's long-standing "60-day rule," under which requests for asylum must be filed within 60 days of arrival in the country. However, in 1998 Japan informed UNHCR that it would accept every application even if filed after 60 days. According to UNHCR, during the year there were no reports of applications being rejected for missing the deadline.

Despite the new approach to the 60-day rule, the Japanese government emphasized to USCR its rationale: "If [asylum seekers] apply for refugee status long after the occurrence of the event which forced them to seek asylum, we might not be able to conduct an appropriate examination since the fact-finding of the case would become more difficult. We consider sixty days to be an appropriate amount of time for a possible asylum seeker to submit his or her application given Japan's geography and social environment." The government said it takes into account justifiable reasons for delay in applying.

The stated reason for the 1997 immigration law amendments was to increase the punishment for undocumented immigration, particularly organized smuggling. Japan said it intends to strictly prosecute brokers who are involved in the "trafficking of humans." Therefore, said Japanese authorities, the changes "will in no way make the approval of refugees more difficult."

According to UNHCR, the 1997 amendments have had no impact on the asylum system in Japan other than possibly discouraging some Japanese to employ asylum seekers who are in the country illegally. UNHCR told USCR that "in terms of refugee recognition, granting humanitarian status, treatment and detention of asylum seekers, and the flexible application of the 60-day rule, it could be said that 1998 was arguably the best year in Japan since refugee status determination was established in 1982."

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