Japan’s Refugee Policy: Its Problems and Solutions

by Kentaro Sakamoto

Japan has been known for accepting few refugees. In 2012, 18 people, only 0.56 % of the asylum seekers who applied for refugee status in Japan, were officially accepted as refugees (Zenkoku Nanmin Bengodan, 2013). There were also 112 people who were not able to get refugee status but permitted to stay in Japan on humanitarian grounds. However, even if you combine these two groups of people, it is only 4.07 % of the asylum seekers who demanded refugee status in 2012 (Ibid). The average number of refugees accepted per year in Japan from 2000 to 2012 is only 28 (Amnesty International, 2013). In contrast, other developed countries accept a lot more refugees than Japan does. For example, the U.S. accepted 16,742 refugees in 2008, Canada accepted 9,648, Germany had 7, 291, Britain had 4,752, Italy had 1,785 and the Netherlands had 515, while Japan only accepted 57 in the same year (Sekai to Nihon no nanmin nintei su, n.d.). Yet 2008 is the year that Japan had accepted more refugees than any other year between 2000 and 2012.

There are mainly four reasons why Japan does not accept many refugees. First, the Japanese government wants to have a strict screening process on deciding who can become a refugee and who cannot. The government is afraid of the possibility of people abusing the system as a method to stay in Japan or get financial aid from the government (Amnesty International, 2012). Second, the government is afraid of accepting refugees from certain countries such as China and Turkey for fear of relationships between Japan and those countries being deteriorated. This is the reason why Kurds from Turkey have never been admitted as refugee yet, despite the fact that many Kurds are demanding refugee status in Japan. For example, in 2011, 234 people from Turkey applied for refugee status and all of them were Kurds, but not even a single person was able to become an official refugee (Zenkoku Nanmin Bengodan, 2012). Thirdly, the number of people who demand refugee status in Japan is not big due to the first and second reasons written above. In 2012, the number of applicants seeking for refugee status was 2545 (Zenkoku Nanmin Bengodan, 2013), which is not even bigger than the number of refugees accepted in the U.S, Germany and Britain in 2008, according to the data shown in the first paragraph. The system that requires people to actually be in Japan to apply for the status also reduces the number of applicants. Moreover, since applicants are not allowed to work during the screening process which can take up to several years, people hesitate to come to Japan as asylum seekers. Fourth, the cultural and language barriers of Japan are quit big, since many people still believe that Japan is an ethnically homogenous nation. Also, the fact that many people cannot speak English makes it harder for some asylum seekers to adapt themselves to Japan.

Despite all these reasons that are limiting Japan from accepting more refugees, I believe that Japan should accept more of them. Refugees are human, and all humans certainly have human rights. An international trend to protect human rights is being more and more promoted, and responsible states in the international society are expected to protect not only the human rights of their own people but the rights of people from other states/regions too. If Japan wants to become the leader of Asia, it must start from protecting human rights more and appeal to the world that Japan is a nation that can contribute to create a better world. Accepting refugees is the first step for this. Currently in Japan, because of the system forbidding asylum seekers to work during the screening process, many of them are working illegally with low wages, and some of them are even treated inhumanely in their jobs. Accepting more official refugees and modifying the screening system will protect them from falling into this situation which can violate their rights. Moreover, accepting refugees can be a solution to the declining working population in primary industries, since many of the native Japanese do not want to work in these fields. It can also be a solution to the national pension system that is facing problems because of the increase of old people and the decrease of young people, as most of the asylum seekers are from the younger working generation. Accepting refugees is not merely a way to improve the lives of people who were persecuted in their original countries, but also a way to solve the difficult problems that Japan is facing now.


Amnesty International. (2012). Nihon no nanmin: Nanmin nintei seido ranyousha o ippanka suruna [Refugees in Japan: Do not generalize the misusers of the refugee admitting system]. Amnesty International. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://www.amnesty.or.jp/human-rights/topic/refugee_in_japan/topic_refugee_media_asahi2012.html

Amnesty International. (2013). Nihon no nanmin: Nihon ni kurasu nanmin no kiso A to Z [Refugees of Japan: The basic knowledge of refugees living in Japan from A to Z]. Amnesty International. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://www.amnesty.or.jp/human-rights/topic/refugee_in_japan/faq.html

Sekai to Nihon no nanmin nintei su [Numbers of refugees accepted in Japan and the world]. (n.d.). Rafiq Website. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://rafiq.jp/event/101205nanmin_report.pdf

Zenkoku Nanmin Bengodan. (2012). Nanmin nintei shinsei su [Number of applicants for refugee status]. Zenkoku Nanmin Bengodan [Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees]. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://www.jlnr.jp/stat/past10_02.html

Zenkoku Nanmin Bengodan. (2013). 2012 nen no Nihon ni okeru nanmin ninteisha su tou ni kansuru seimei [A statement about the number of refugees accepted in Japan in 2012]. Zenkoku Nanmin Bengodan [Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees] . Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://www.jlnr.jp/statements/2013/JLNR_statement_201304_jp.pdf