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As I See It: Himeji community provides insight into refugee-friendly society

Children who were born in Japan to refugees practice a Vietnamese lion dance in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, in this July 2016 file photo. (Mainichi)

A number of Western countries have recently been taking a hard look at the policy of accepting large numbers of refugees, a trend exemplified by President Donald Trump's order suspending refugee arrivals and temporarily banning entry to the U.S. by citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.

While Japanese people appear to be viewing those moves as "something happening overseas," Japan has been under fire in the international community for its strict refugee recognition system. In the past, the government's support for refugees fleeing war and political upheaval in Indochina proved insufficient to help them become self-reliant members of Japanese society.

A look at a community in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, where many refugees and their descendants live, provides insight into how our society can become an integrated multicultural society.

After Trump's inflammatory rhetoric earlier this year, Vietnamese children born in Japan to refugee parents asked adults in their community in Himeji, "Which course will Japan take?" and, "What will become of us?" It seemed they were suddenly feeling how insecure their position here was.

The Japanese government accepted about 11,300 refugees from Indochina between the 1970s through the mid-2000s. However, their status was unstable as Japan accepted them under an ad-hoc Cabinet decision and not under the formal legal framework of the international convention on the status of refugees.

After a facility to promote their permanent settlement here was launched in Himeji in 1979 -- the first facility of its kind in Japan -- refugees were introduced to workplaces after taking just a three-month Japanese language course. When the facility was closed in 1996, those who had settled in Himeji and other areas "felt at a loss," according to one of the refugees.

A 60-year-old Vietnamese refugee recalls studying Japanese hard on his own, scribbling down every character he saw on signboards on his way to work and later looking them up in dictionaries at home.

"It took me about 10 years before I could understand Japanese," he recalled. A lack of Japanese language education for refugees has often resulted in social isolation. The government also relies heavily on the private sector for livelihood support for refugees. Even today, when there are a large number of children of first-generation refugees growing up in Japan, many households find themselves unable to break away from the negative chain of poverty and lack of educational opportunities.

Shiho Tanaka, 40, a coordinator for the Japan Association for Refugees, an incorporated nonprofit organization, said, "The Japanese government has not specified a comprehensive policy for refugees and immigrants."

The government established its refugee recognition system in 1982, and between then and 2015 it had granted refugee status to just some 3,100 people, including to those recognized for humanitarian reasons. In contrast, the United States and Germany recognized respectively 21,171 and 10,915 people as refugees in 2013 alone, though a simple comparison with Japan is difficult.

Gracia Liu-Farrer, a professor and immigrant issue specialist at Waseda University graduate school, commented, "Japanese people are flexible in absorbing foreign cultures, such as Halloween, but they are reluctant to live together with foreigners in their communities and experience a clash of cultures. They should learn they can create something new if they come to terms with foreign cultures."

Referring to tendencies such as shying away from people with foreign names and teachers using the expression "we Japanese" in classes that include foreign students, Liu-Farrer said people in this country "need to learn such behavior and language are regarded as discriminatory in the international community. To that end, Japanese people need to be in an environment where they have people with diverse cultural backgrounds close to them."

A community in Himeji succeeded in revitalizing itself through living with people with different cultural backgrounds. At the city-run Ichikawa Jutaku housing complex, where about 100 foreigners including Vietnamese and Chinese live, residents initially had quarrels over noise and garbage collection stemming from lifestyle differences. After Japanese residents invited foreign residents to participate in community activities, however, they succeeded in bridging the gap between them. Now, Vietnamese residents perform traditional lion dances and cook spring rolls at local festivals, and take part in disaster drills and cleanup activities.

"While residents here are aging, young Vietnamese residents are helping out with physical chores such as pulling up weeds and pruning plants, which is very helpful. It is important to make concessions to each other; rejection of each other would only result in conflicts," said Yasushichi Oda, the 79-year-old head of the Ichikawadai 2-chome neighborhood association.

Due to its declining population, Japan is destined to rely heavily on foreigners for maintaining its workforce. Some people worry that security will deteriorate with a rising number of foreign residents, but that is not necessarily the case. According to the Ministry of Justice, foreign residents in Japan reached a record 2.3 million in June last year, but the white paper on crime shows that the number of cases where foreign residents were arrested or reported to prosecutors for criminal offenses dropped from some 43,600 in 2005 to around 16,000 in 2015.

There are moves in Japan to open its door to more foreign residents. It has adopted the third-country resettlement program to accept refugees who did not gain protection from the first foreign country where they sought shelter, and enacted a law in November last year to rectify the Technical Intern Training Program for foreigners. However, if those systems are to be abused to make up for manpower shortages and little support was provided to them, foreigners would become isolated from the community, resulting in possible deterioration of the security situation.

Japan apparently stands at a watershed. The country is urged to have the system and willingness to accept foreigners as members of our own communities by enhancing Japanese language education for them and providing other assistance, thereby seeking to achieve an inclusive society instead of a divided one. (By Ayako Yamagata, Himeji Bureau)

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