Unsettled: Seeking asylum is tough in Trump's America —and even tougher in Japan

Jan 14, 2020

In the years after World War II, most countries signed a United Nations agreement pledging to protect those fleeing persecution. But there are now more people forcibly displaced from their homes — 70 million — than at any other time in history, and hardly any of them will find a new country to settle in. To understand the breadth of the global refugee crisis, and the failure of the international system designed to protect refugees, Gothamist/WNYC reporter Matt Katz went to a country that doesn’t get much attention when it comes to this issue: Japan.

This stable and wealthy nation awards legal status to fewer than 1% of asylum-seekers despite a shrinking population and need for laborers. The following series of audio reports introduces listeners to both asylum-seekers desperate to make a home in Japan, and the Japanese citizens who don’t think refugees can ever become Japanese. We look at how asylum-seekers increasingly end up detained, and we visit the Japanese version of a sanctuary city. Through it all, we hear echoes of the politics of the Trump administration and see shadows of the struggle of immigrant New Yorkers past and present.

Listen to Part I: Massamba arrives in Tokyo with a suitcase and a long-shot dream


When Massamba Mangala landed in Tokyo from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he found himself in one of the busiest and ritziest parts of town, stopping people on the street to ask if they spoke French or English. His is the story of today’s refugees, who aren’t just walking across borders. They’re flying into airports in countries where they know no one, smartphones in hand to help with directions and communication. From Tokyo’s Narita International Airport to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, they come for reasons never before anticipated: climate change, poverty, police corruption. And they’re often detained, and deported, by authorities who consider them to be terrorists, hustlers or mere economic migrants. How does a French-speaking Congolese refugee convince Japanese authorities otherwise?

Listen to Part II: Rose and Nahed try to become ‘Japanese’


Asylum-seekers everywhere face family separation, trauma, poverty, deportation — and the challenges of assimilation. In Japan, that means more than just learning the language and figuring out unique garbage disposal procedures. For Rose, a refugee from Cameroon, it’s about laughing at how amazing the toilets are in her new country. For Nahed, who still remembers the lyrics to anime songs she learned back in Tunisia, it’s about throwing herself into a culture she has long admired. But as they both apply for asylum, they’re up against a Japanese mindset that resists newcomers. At a high school practice for kendo, a traditional Japanese martial art, a Japanese mother bemoans the decline of her culture and expresses fear of the new immigrants.

Listen to Part III: Flying across borders and ending up detained


Worldwide, seeking asylum is increasingly treated as a criminal act. In the United States, some 12,000 asylum-seekers currently sit in prisons even though they passed initial interviews indicating their claims of persecution or torture are legitimate. Asylum-seekers get locked up in Japan, too, and they face the same problems: hunger strikes, suicides, poor medical care. “For what crime?” asked Zaw Min Htut, who was detained for a year before becoming the first Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar to win official refugee status in Japan. “What I did wrong in Japan?” But while the system is stacked against them, asylum-seekers find support on the other side of the glass in jailhouse visitation rooms. Like the New Yorkers who travel to New Jersey every day to meet with detainees, volunteers in Tokyo make a similar pilgrimage, providing the rest of us with a glimpse of life inside.

Listen to Part IV: Coexisting in Japan’s sanctuary city


The chef at the sushi restaurant in downtown Kawaguchi has heard the complaints from his customers about how diverse the city has become — “many foreigners speaking so loudly, with mysterious languages.” But that doesn’t bother Kawaguchi’s mayor, who has turned this town near Tokyo into what Americans might call a “sanctuary city.” Kawaguchi has among the highest percentages of foreign residents in the country, and its immigrants are provided educational opportunities and medical coverage not available elsewhere. Still, for a Kurdish asylum-seeker who has lived in Japan most of his life, sanctuary city status can’t protect from deportation. Over a Kurdish dinner eaten with chopsticks, he wonders what will become of his Japanese life.

Listen to Part V: A broken promise for refugees


Japan’s decision to reject most asylum-seekers is not just a function of its restrictive immigration policies; it’s a reflection of how the global refugee protection system has collapsed, from Tokyo to the southern border of the United States. International refugee agreements are increasingly rendered obsolete by the various new stressors that are displacing people, the sheer number of asylum-seekers applying for legal status, and the nationalist political backlash that is closing doors on immigrants of all kinds. Japanese officials defend their approach to refugees as legal and apolitical, and the country’s conception of the pure Japanese bloodline makes it unlikely things will soon change. But could there be other ways to protect the world’s most vulnerable people without relying on traditional government gatekeepers? 

Matt Katz reports on air at WNYC about immigration, refugees and national security. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattkatz00.

This series was originally featured on WNYC/Gothamist. This project was supported in part by the Abe Fellowship for Journalists, a reporting grant from the Social Science Research Council and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.

Translation support from Sulejman Brkic, Millie Christie-Dervaux, Kaori Goto, Kasumi Hirokawa, Chie Matsumoto, Makiko Segawa, and Utsuki Otsuka.

Voice-overs by Andres O’Hara-Plotnik, Utsuki Otsuka and George Wellington.

From The World ©2019