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Ex-Japan immigration officer queries 'black box' hiding policy on foreigners' rights (Pt 1)

Former immigration officer Yoichi Kinoshita is seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on April 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Yukinao Kin)

TOKYO -- Debate over a proposed revision of Japan's immigration control law has reached a peak in Diet proceedings. The country's immigration policy has been the target of criticism from both in and outside Japan over issues such as the extremely low refugee status recognition rate of less than 1%, infinite detention periods of foreign nationals served with deportation orders, and inhumane treatment of such individuals.

    The Mainichi Shimbun sat down with a former immigration officer who revealed the inner workings of Japan's immigration agency to examine whether revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act would actually help solve the country's immigration administration issues.

    Yoichi Kinoshita, 56, a former immigration administration official who had engaged in inspecting foreigners' residency statuses as an immigration officer for 18 years until 2019, showed up to the interview in formal attire. He currently works as a certified administrative procedures legal specialist at an office in Tokyo.

    Kinoshita joined the Public Security Intelligence Agency in 1989, after graduating from university. In 2001, he was transferred to the Immigration Bureau, what is now the Immigration Services Agency, an external body of the Ministry of Justice, and subsequently worked as an immigration officer until March 2019. He also attended Kanagawa University's graduate school alongside his official duties in the last two years before his retirement. He obtained a master's degree on immigration administration -- his own line of work.

    Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa is seen answering a question about a draft revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act during a House of Representatives plenary session on April 16, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    The tasks of immigration officials vary greatly depending on each division. Kinoshita was first assigned to the Immigration Bureau's section in charge of investigating applicants' actual living conditions, such as checking whether foreign residents were not involved in sham marriages or engaging in fraudulent labor, by checking them against application information, among other means. Two years later, he moved to Haneda Airport's branch office and was in charge of border control to check incoming individuals to prevent illegal entries into the country. Right when Kinoshita began to work there in 2001, the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred in the United States, creating a sense of tension in the bureau as a whole.

    Reflecting on this time, Kinoshita said, "I was painfully aware of the threat imposed by terrorists, as an individual who was a part of immigration administration. I think that every immigration official held the conviction that moving forward, it's absolutely necessary to conduct rigorous examinations."

    Japan's central immigration agency possesses overwhelming authority to make decisions involving foreigners' entry into and departure from the country, with the objective of "protecting public security." So, how do such immigration officials view foreigners in Japan?

    "This is something I can talk about now because time has passed," began Kinoshita. "I used to have this view that foreigners might do something bad, and had the potential to turn into dangerous people. I told myself that I mustn't view human nature as fundamentally good."

    This June 2020 file photo shows the entrance to the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center, known for issues such as long-term detentions, in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo. (Mainichi/Ken Uzuka)

    Although Kinoshita had such a prejudice, his views began to change following his transfer to another department -- a screening section in which officers listen to the situations of foreigners who overstayed their visas and determine whether they should be granted special permission for residence. As he was responsible for numerous cases, he gradually began to feel discomfort surrounding Japan's immigration administration. The first signs of doubt emerged when he handled cases of children's deportation, prompting him to think, "Is it OK for things to stay the way they are?"

    "Children who were born and raised in Japan, or those who came to the country at a young age have roots in Japan. They study at schools in the country, and have been picturing a future in Japan. We're making these children suddenly go to their 'home countries' which they don't know much about. I questioned what exactly was Japan's 'national interest' that needed to be protected even by going to such lengths."

    The special permission for residence system is a measure that provides residency status to foreigners who were issued departure orders and subject to deportation proceedings, while considering special circumstances. However, the criteria for determining eligibility are ambiguous, and the immigration agency claims it will "view various circumstances comprehensively" for each case. Kinoshita sensed danger in this approach.

    "Decisions on whether individuals should be protected by granting them special permission (to stay in Japan) vary among officers in charge, as well as regional bureaus. There were instances where even though they handled similar cases, one bureau granted permission while another didn't," said Kinoshita.

    "Furthermore, I was in the screening section for three years from 2006, and was transferred to a separate department in 2009. I was subsequently stationed in the screening section again from 2016, and screening criteria had clearly become much stricter during that period. For example, permission to stay in the country was previously issued rather flexibly for people who were married to Japanese individuals and had no particular problems besides overstaying their visas, but that was not the case when I returned to the section."

    Why did such events occur? A government policy was behind the change; specifically, a plan to decrease the number of illegal stays by foreigners in Japan by half over five years between 2004 and 2008.

    Kinoshita was in the screening section during this time, and officials were focusing on increasing the number of legal stays; in other words, to grant more special permission for residence. According to statistics, there were about 50,000 cases of special permission granted to foreigners to stay in the country during the period covered by the government policy. The number of illegal stays ultimately decreased by half from some 220,000 to around 110,000, and about half of this number was effectively covered by this government policy.

    But issues arose after the government project reached its end. The Immigration Bureau reversed its policy and no longer granted as much special consent of relief measures from deportation.

    The number of cases where special permission was granted, which had stood at an average of around 10,000 per year during the aforementioned government policy, has been hovering at an extremely low level of around 1,000 cases per year since Kinoshita returned to the screening section in 2016.

    "Even though they all have similar circumstances, some of them are granted deportation relief at a certain period while others aren't during a different time frame. Such a thing shouldn't happen normally, but the immigration agency views matters differently. It says that it's natural for decisions to change depending on the time."

    Then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, third from right in the front row, and other Japanese delegates celebrate after Tokyo won the bid to host the 2020 Summer Games, in Buenos Aires, on Sept. 7, 2013. (Pool photo)

    The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games also lurks in the background of a sudden decrease in the granting of relief measures from deportation. Tokyo won the bid to host the 2020 summer games in September 2013, and this seems to have been a significant turning point as well.

    The Ministry of Justice issued a document dated April 7, 2016 addressing regional immigration bureau directors. It touched upon the Tokyo Games and instructed them to "actively engage in specific measures for the efficient and effective removal of foreigners who pose concerns to Japanese society."

    Kinoshita's doubt surrounding immigration work grew increasingly, and eventually became consolidated into the following question: "It all comes down to our discretion and one subtle decision. There are no external bodies that keep us in check either. Is it really sound and fair to take such an approach where inner workings are hidden like a 'black box'?"

    The former immigration officer decided to pursue specialized research at graduate school in order to address his questions. After two years of research, he came to a clear conclusion that "it is wrong for powerful measures capable of restricting human rights of foreign nationals to be decided under the sole authority of the immigration agency. Examinations should also be conducted by a third-party."

    At the age of 54, Kinoshita retired from the Immigration Services Agency, six years prior to his mandatory retirement age.

    (This is Part 1 of a two-part series.)

    (Japanese original by Yukinao Kin, Digital News Center)

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