Admittedly stung by international criticism of its inaction, Japan has begun moving toward taking a "fairer" share of Indochinese refugees. "I will thoroughly study the refugee problem in order that Japan can gain international respect," Justice Minister Seisuke Okuno told parliament recently."Unless Japan does play an appropriate role, it will become disliked in the international community."
Until last year, Japan maintained a policy of refusing to accept refugees or anyone seeking political asylum. The rationale was to protect the unique homogeneity of 118 million Japanese jammed onto a small archipelago.
But there was outcry throughout Southeast Asia and beyond when it was revealed that, although hundreds of Vietnamese "boat people" were being temporarily housed in Japanese refugee centers pending resettlement, only six had been able to meet the extremely strict Japanese standards for permanent residence here.
Japanese officials tried to insist that the small number was because the Vietnamese did not want to stay here. Many refugees, however, said the real problem was the difficulty of gaining acceptance and equal treatment in Japanese society.
Under repeated nudging by the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees, the government late last year announced Japan would accept 500 Indochinese for resettlement. This was increased to 1,000 earlier this year -- compared to some 389,000 refugees accepted so far by the United States, 66,000 by France, 61,000 by Canada, and 39,000 by Australia.
A US congressional study released Dec. 1 concedes that Japan has contributed more than $23 million to UN expenses for refugees and pledged another $60 million. But it also points out that this amount was dwarfed by the US contribution and is far below the equivalent of what other nations have paid out by accepting refugees.
By the end of October this year 458 applications had been processed in Japan.
Asian critics argue that Japan gained considerable economic benefits from the Vietnam war through nonmilitary supplies to US forces and South Vietnam and should now meet its responsibilities on the refugee front.
Japan last year signed the 1954 convention relating to the status of refugees , but it is the only developed country still to ratify it.
The Health and Welfare Ministry has led the opposition to this, because of the need for wholesale revision of the national annuity law.
The convention stipulates that legal refugees have of receive exactly the same treatment as citizens of the host country, including social security. But under the existing annuity law, only Japanese nationals can receive national pensions and child benefits.
The Health and Welfare Ministry's opposition is based on the fear that allowing foreign residents of Japan to benefit will throw the whole social security system into confusion.
Political sources say this really refers to almost a million Chinese and Koreans who immigrated or were forcibly brouhgt to Japan during World War II, but who remain second-class citizens.
The ministry believes that if they, too, are recognized as refugees, efforts to rescue state finances from a chronic deficit will suffer a severe setback, the sources said.
Health and Welfare Minister Sunao Sonoda has publicly ordered his officials to remove all stumbling blocks to ratification of the refugee convention.
Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ito is said to be hopeful this can be achieved during the next parliamentary session opening Dec. 22. But political sources doubt it will be that easy.