【Report】The 49th AJI Frontier Seminar on “Politics of Naming and Definitions: Reflection on Cases of Syrian, Afghan, and Ukrainian Refugees in Japan”

The 49th AJI Frontier Seminar took place online on Tuesday, November 8th, 2022. Dr. Aoi MOCHIZUKI, a Senior Researcher at Asia-Japan Research Organization, Ritsumeikan University, gave a presentation in English entitled “Politics of Naming and Definitions: Reflection on Cases of Syrian, Afghan, and Ukrainian Refugees in Japan” The title is the outcome of her research on how Japan treats forced migrants.

She explained that Japan’s acceptance of refugees has been hindered by outdated legislation intended for accepting forced migrants as a result of political persecution. Political activists came from China and Korea, Russian refugees were accepted after WWI, and Jewish refugees were welcomed for their skills.

Eventually, in 1978 more as a result of international pressure than out concern from the humanitarian perspective, the Japanese government admitted Indo-Chinese refugees for resettlement and finally, 30 years after had been established, joined the Refugee Convention in 1981. The Cabinet approved a decision to provide resettlement assistance to conventional refugees in 2002, and government relief centers have been providing Japanese language education, job placement assistance, and other support services to conventional refugees.

While Germany admitted 100,000 refugees from the Syrian war, Japan in comparison has accepted 150 displaced Syrians, classifying them not as refugees but as students, and thus avoiding hosting masses of refugees from the Middle East. In August 2022, 98 Afghan people who worked in the Japanese embassy were recognized as conventional refugees, but there are still more than 800 Afghan displaced people in Japan who have not been granted refugee status. Recently, due to the Ukrainian crisis Japan has granted some Ukrainians a designated activities visa, calling them “evacuees”, not “refugees”, and the government relies heavily on the private sector and local governments to support them.

Dr. Mochizuki then questioned whether the acceptance of Ukrainian evacuees means that the government has made some progress on Japan’s refugee policy, or if they are continuing to simply call people who should be considered as conventional refugees by other names. She concluded that the Ukrainian crisis has led to a surge in the number of immigrants gaining refugee status, but Japan’s policy of assign them other names makes it difficult to grasp the reality of the refugee problem in Japan and hinders the development of refugee studies in this country.

his interesting subject generated much interest from the listeners in the Q&A session, focusing on the reasons for Japan’s hesitation in granting refugee status and why Japan has been more open to accepting Ukrainian refugees than Syrian and Asia refugees who were equally if not more in need of humanitarian assistance. Everyone appreciated Dr. Mochizuki’s answers and enjoyed this presentation on a topic of much recent concern.

Dr. Aoi Mochizuki delivering her presentation