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Detention in Japan: Asylum seekers at the Shinagawa Detention Centre


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Picture by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.

Under the guise of protecting the integrity of the asylum system, governments have taken increasingly punitive measures including detention to control and manage migrant inflows at the expense of the rights of asylum seekers. Japan is no exception. In this short article, I want to draw attention to how, in the wake of an uptick in acceptance rates in Japan, the government has begun using increasingly draconian measures to weed out supposedly fraudulent refugee claims.


Japan ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention in 1981 and has consistently accepted a small portion of the world’s refugees. However, despite its comparatively low acceptance rate, Japan is the fourth largest funding contributor to the UNHCR after the US, the EU and Germany – all major reception areas. Active support of the international refugee regime is an important part of Japan’s global image.


On the one hand, Japan presents a welcoming face for asylum seekers. However, contrary to the increasing asylum applications since the mid-2010s, Japan has granted asylum to only a select few deemed most deserving under their interpretation of the 1951 Convention. For example, while countries like Canada accept gendered forms of persecution as a legitimate claim to asylum, Japan has excluded such interpretations, making it difficult to access asylum for many. 


Despite stringent measures, the number of asylum applicants has not dipped below 15,000 per year since 2016. Until recently, Japan’s surprising low rate of acceptance at below 1% neither attracted much attention nor required an explanation. However, the increase in media coverage of the global refugee crisis and the result of the 2017 intake of refugees elicited eye-catching headlines both within and outside of Japan: ‘20,000 applications and 20 acceptances’. 


In response to the rising numbers of applicants, the Ministry of Justice promised to implement further checks to identify ‘bogus refugees’ through a simplified preliminary sorting process. However, the practice of criminalising asylum seekers has a long history in Japan. Japan’s reluctance to accept refugees and the government’s insistence on detention as a pre-emptive and punitive measure has been met with considerable backlash from NGOs, advocacy and civic groups both within and outside of the nation.


Such pre-emptive and punitive measures have detrimental effects on asylum seekers in Japan. A particularly illustrative case study is the experience of asylum seekers at the Shinagawa detention centre during the pandemic. The Shinagawa detention centre is one of the biggest facilities among a wider network consisting of fifteen detention centres across Japan. 


The study showed that prolonged detainment leads to a social limbo with potential detrimental effects on the physical and mental well-being of asylum seekers. Another important aspect is the system of provisional release, the karihomen. Groups like the Provisional Release Association of Japan (PRAJ) advocate for the rights of immigrant detainees including asylum seekers on humanitarian grounds. Despite their best efforts, there have been cases of sickness and deaths at the detention centre. 


The pandemic further highlighted tough conditions at the detention centre such as overcrowding and closed spaces where practising social distancing is impossible when seven people are pushed into a single room. Abroad, popular media sources began to highlight the potential danger and human rights implications of detention. A recent article in The Guardian referred to detention centres in the US as ‘death traps’. At the Shinagawa detention centre, it was revealed in February this year that 55 detainees and six officials tested positive. On 1 May 2020, the Japanese authorities planned to promote the use of karihomen in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the facility. However, under this status, asylum seekers were deprived of access to healthcare and a work permit and their movements were closely monitored. 


Amidst international movements against the normalisation of the detainment of asylum seekers, Japan took a surprising turn. As a measure to address problems of prolonged detention, the government released a series of reports in 2020 promising to reform detention measures. The report failed to address long-term solutions to detention and instead placed its focus on deportation and further punitive measures on those who refuse to leave after a failed application – even when they would be placed in danger back home. 

The use of detention across the globe points to the way asylum seekers have been perceived by governments as a threat that needs to be managed and controlled. Detention is justified as a trade-off between asylum seekers’ rights and the overall preservation of the refugee protection system, which rewards only those considered to be ‘authentic’ refugees. In Japan, the pandemic has only highlighted the underlying challenges posed by such an unsustainable structure. As the case of the Shinagawa detention illustrates, long-term detention has serious implications for those seeking asylum in Japan and there is yet to be a comprehensive measure to address them.

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Mariri Niino

Mariri Niino holds a BA in Social Studies from Sophia University, Tokyo and is currently a master’s student (MSc Migration Studies) at the University of Oxford. She led a research group that interviewed asylum seekers in Tokyo from West Africa and the Middle East at Sophia University. She is currently working on her dissertation on how multicultural coexistence – a social cohesion policy – is implemented at the regional government level in Japan. Her research interests include city-level coalition building, media and migration, migration and asylum policies in Japan. 

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