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Japan's treatment of Ukrainians contrasts with its prior refugee policy


Millions of Ukrainians fled their country once Russia invaded. A small number of them are living in Japan. Japan's embrace of the Ukrainians contrasts with less than 1% of refugees from other nations that Tokyo has recently accepted. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Recently arrived Ukrainians are learning basic Japanese to help them navigate life in a new country. Around 1,800 have fled the war and come to Japan, and around 70 have settled in the port city of Yokohama. Among them is 29-year-old Sergei Litvinov, a trained chef. He says his love of Japanese culture drew him here.

SERGEI LITVINOV: Especially its music, rock music of Japan. Yes, I'm listening after 16 years old.

KUHN: There's been an outpouring of sympathy for the Ukrainians in Japan. The government has given them residency and work permits for up to a year, and Yokohama is providing temporary housing, food and living expenses. Japan calls them evacuees, not refugees, and expects them to return to Ukraine after the war. Litvinov, though, says he likes it here and would like to stay on.

LITVINOV: So my dream has come true, but I'm not happy because it's a horrible story in Ukraine.

KUHN: The Ukrainians are an exception. Japan granted refugee status to just 74 applicants last year, the highest number ever. Japan has long considered itself not a nation of immigrants but of one ethnic group and one culture. Refugees applying for asylum in Japan have to demonstrate they face persecution at home. That's a heavy burden, as Heydar Safari Diman knows. He fled persecution in Iran. He's now been in Japan for more than 30 years. But authorities have repeatedly rejected his bids for refugee status. They've detained him a total of more than four years in what he says were hellish conditions. He speaks fluent Japanese.

HEYDAR SAFARI DIMAN: (Through interpreter) I like Japan and Japanese people, but I hate the ones in the detention center. How could they bully us like that? What did we do? We are refugees. I have no criminal record.

KUHN: In 2019, Safari Diman was one of about a hundred detainees who went on hunger strikes to protest their detention. Safari Diman says he sank into deep depression.

SAFARI DIMAN: (Through interpreter) You need a lot of courage to commit suicide. It's very difficult to kill yourself in there. And I did not have that courage.

KUHN: Tokyo-based attorney Chie Komai represents Safari Diman. She took his case to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in 2019. She argued that her client's detention was arbitrary because immigration authorities can detain foreigners indefinitely without any judicial review. The U.N. agreed with her.

CHIE KOMAI: (Through interpreter) They made it clear that the Japanese immigration detention system is in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

KUHN: The Japanese government rejected the U.N.'s criticism, but they did not dispute the details of Safari Diman's case, and he hasn't been detained since. Safari Diman says he doesn't expect the sort of benefits the Ukrainians are getting.

SAFARI DIMAN: (Through interpreter) I'm not asking for Japanese taxpayers to support me. If authorities recognize me as a refugee, I will work and pay taxes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: Back in Yokohama, the Ukrainians work on their Japanese. It could come in handy, as they could be here for the long haul. The Japanese government is reportedly planning to extend their benefits. Kazuhiro Suzuki is a Yokohama city official who runs programs helping the Ukrainians. He says he's aware that foreigners in Japan from other conflict zones aren't as lucky.

KAZUHIRO SUZUKI: (Through interpreter) We've only been supporting the Ukrainian evacuees, while the situation of refugees from other countries hasn't changed. Every day we keep working, this discrepancy bothers us.

KUHN: The war in Ukraine and the arrival of refugees has helped to focus attention on a social problem that many in Japan were only dimly aware of. Some of the refugees' supporters are hopeful that this will push Japan's government to treat all people fleeing war and persecution more leniently.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yokohama, Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.