More than 6,400 refugees and asylum seekers were in Japan at the end of 2001. These included some 5,900Indochinese refugees (Vietnamese and Cambodians) admitted before 2001 who remained in Japan with temporary status, 131 Indochinese refugees admitted from overseas during the year, 26 persons granted asylum in 2001 (including persons from Burma, Iran, and Afghanistan), 187 persons with pending asylum claims, 196 rejected asylum seekers with special resident permits based on humanitarian concerns (including 67 persons granted such permits during 2001), and 16 refugees recognized under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

UNHCR does not confer mandate status on asylum applicants whose claims are still pending with the Japanese government (although it provides opinions to the government on certain cases). However, UNHCR may confer mandate status on persons denied asylum by Japan who have strong grounds for recognition.

Japan has an ongoing family-reunification program for close relatives of Indochinese refugees resettled in earlier years. During 2001, Japan admitted 131 refugees from overseas (91 Vietnamese and 40 Cambodians).

Of the more than 10,600 Indochinese refugees admitted to Japan between 1979 and 2000 (and some 2,000 children born in Japan), 5,900 remained in Japan under temporary residence permits, mostly valid from one to three years. Although Japan regularly renews such permits and allows holders to apply for permanent residence after five years, the government does not normally grant permanent residence until the individual has fully demonstrated his or her eligibility, including "good conduct," throughout a lengthy period – often ten years, according to sources in Japan.

The Japanese government claims that the status of the Indochinese with one- to three-year permits is "stable," because the permits are normally extended and the holders can work, travel freely, and obtain various benefits. However, both UNHCR and the U.S. Committee for Refugees count as refugees these 5,900 Indochinese because such persons do not yet have a durable solution.

During the year, 353 persons applied for asylum – the highest number in 19 years. Most applicants were from Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The government adjudicated 342 applications, approving 24 (7 percent) in the first instance, with another 2 cases approved on appeal, and rejecting 316. At year's end, 187 cases were pending first-instance decisions, with another 141 cases pending appeal.

Late in the year, Japan granted asylum to a Chinese man who had awaited such status for 11 years (having re-applied three times). He was only the second Chinese dissident whom Japan had recognized as a refugee since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. The Chinese government protested the recognition.

Asylum Law and Procedure

Requests for asylum must be filed within 60 days of arrival in Japan (or 60 days after the need for protection arose), unless "unavoidable circumstances" prevent timely application. According to the government, "geographic and social conditions" in Japan make it reasonable to mandate that asylum seekers apply within 60 days. However, the government contends that it considers even post-60-day claims because it takes into account the persecution claim in determining whether the reasons for delay were unavoidable.

UNHCR estimated that procedural grounds such as the "60-day rule" accounted for about half of all rejected asylum applications in 2001.

During the year, Japan allowed 67 rejected asylum applicants to remain in the country with special resident permits based on humanitarian concerns, including civil war in their home countries. The permits are good for one to three years and are generally renewable. However, as with the Indochinese refugees, the permits carry no legal guarantee of permanent residence. At year's end, 196 persons with such special residence permits remained in Japan.

Restrictive Measures

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and UNHCR have expressed concern that Japan, like other industrialized countries, uses visa restrictions and other strategies to prevent would-be asylum seekers from reaching Japan. For example, Japan issued 1,118 visas to Afghans in 1999, but only 584 in 2000 and only 24 in the first ten months of 2001. Under a readmission agreement with China, the Japanese coast guard intercepts vessels carrying undocumented Chinese, and returns most to China without allowing them to enter Japan or seek asylum.

Under Japan's immigration law, all persons who arrive without proper documents – including those who subsequently seek asylum – must be detained. If an individual raises a refugee claim, immigration examiners assess that claim and may grant provisional release based on such factors as the strength of the claim or the applicant's financial circumstances and character. Refugee advocates have said that immigration examiners often deny provisional release until the applicant has been detained for months or even a year.

Whereas the ongoing detention of asylum seekers had previously been the exception rather than the rule, during 2001 the percentage of asylum seekers in detention reached levels well above those in other industrialized countries, with the exception of Australia, according to UNHCR. (The actual numbers, however, were significantly lower than in most other countries because of the relatively low number of asylum seekers reaching Japan.) The asylum seekers detained at the end of 2001 included four persons recognized as refugees by UNHCR.

Japanese authorities have said that they accept all asylum applications when filed, including those filed upon entry at airports. However, in a 2001 series of Kyodo News International articles on refugees in Japan, advocates charged the government with turning away "quite a few" asylum seekers immediately after arrival, with no chance to apply for asylum.

In December, reacting to reports that Japan was detaining Afghan asylum seekers, Japan's Sadako Ogata, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, reportedly pleaded with the Japanese government to take a more positive approach to refugees. The government responded that the Afghans were detained because they did not have proper documents. Earlier in the month, Japan's Daily Yomiuri newspaper reported that Japan had granted asylum to only 7 of 135 Afghans who had fled to Japan since the late 1990s to escape the Taliban. The newspaper noted, "Japan has long taken a closed-door approach to immigration, employing strict immigration controls and refugee policies, in part to maintain homogeneity."

In response to widespread publicity concerning nine Afghans denied asylum in November, Japan's immigration bureau took the rare step of holding a press conference to explain the denials. A bureau official said evidence showed that the men came to Japan to find work rather than to escape persecution. Japanese courts had considered the legality of the government's detention of the nine Afghans, with the High Court eventually ruling in the government's favor.


This 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.