Tokyo opens doors to Asian refugees; first choice still US

Japan sees itself as misunderstood on the issue of Indochinese refugees. The door is not shut, as the rest of the world seems to think, say Foreign Ministry officials. In fact, it's wide open and the welcome mat has been laid out. But no one seems to want to step inside.

Stung by international criticism at its alleged unwillingness to accept some of the thousands of "boat people" fleeing Indochina, Japan began accepting refugees for permanent settlement here in 1979.

At first, it aimed for 500 -- "which should be regarded as a target rather than a quota," according to the Foreign Ministry -- and then 1,000. Currently, the "target" has been at 3,000.

But the trouble is finding refugees willing to accept the offer.

So far, fewer than $1,500 places have been filled, and almost half these are students who were in Japan when Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) fell to the communists in 1975 and never tried to return home.

In fact, virtually all the thousands of boat people who have passed through temporary refugge camps in Japan have merely been in transit elsewhere -- primarily the United States.

"As far as refugees rescued on the high seas are concerned, the rules are extremely flexible. If they want to stay in Japan, they are almost automatically accepted now," says Yukio Imagawa, director of the Foreign Ministry's refugee affairs division.

"The problem is mainly psycological. To most refugees every good thing -- affluence, opportunities, and success -- are represented by the United States.

"They don't regard Japan as a paradise. They have risked all because of some idealistic image of the United States."

Because of being a late starter in the business, Japan also cannot offer the boat people perhaps the most important thing of all -- other refugees.

"If they have any relatives at all living abroad, they are most likely to be in either the United States or France," Mr. Imagawa says.

Officials in charge of various refugee camps say the biggest drawback about Japan as a place for permanent resettlement is its tight-knit, homogeneous society.

"The door may be open, as the Foreign Ministry says, but society remains closed," said one knowledgeable source.

Japanese have a strong sense of tribalism, dividing the world's people into two categories -- themselves and "foreigners."

Outsiders, even those who take the trouble to learn the language, find it very difficult to gain a sense of community with their hosts. And opportunities for job advancement are extremely limited, with the route to the top effectively blocked off to not only all non-Japanese but even those Japanese who are regarded as tainted with too much "internationalization."

Mr. Imagawa indirectly acknowledges this lack of opportunities. While claiming that "there are 10 job offers for every single refugee," he admits that one of the criteria for resettlement is that the applicant not be "too choosy" about the sort of work he does.

But, he says, in many cases companies offering jobs also provide housing, often furnished, for refugees.

Language is the biggest problem for any newcomer to Japan no matter what the nationality. The Foreign Ministry organizes an intensive three-month training course (six hours a day), but even that can provide only the rudiments of understanding a very complex, imprecise language, where often what is not said is just as important as the words actually spoken.

Another problem is Japan's serious overcrowding and general housing shortage.

According to the Foreign Ministry official: "In many cases, the refugee family extends over three generations and can comprise 10 or more people.

"Most job offers are in the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. But it's virtually impossible to find any sort of low-cost housing in the cities big enough for such a large number of people."

Based on these various considerations, therefore, the Japanese government does not think it can ever resettle anywhere near the number of refugees being accepted by other countries. But it wants the rest of the world to understand it is doing its best.

Yukiya Amano, deputy chief of the refugee bureau, says, "We have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the United Nations and to countries like Thailand, where there is a heavy concentration of refugees. In fact, half the food and half the housing for refugees in Southeast Asia is now paid for by Japan.."

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