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Horrible 'hospitality': Detainees talk about reality of Japan immigration facility in film

Foreigners on temporary release hold a press conference with Ian Thomas Ash (far right), director of the film "Ushiku," in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on May 20, 2021. The two have experienced long-term detention at an immigration facility. (Mainichi/Yukinao Kin)

TOKYO -- It is still fresh in our minds that in March this year, a Sri Lankan woman who was in detention at the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau died without being able to receive the medical treatment she sought. What is going on in the "closed rooms" of Japan's immigration facilities? Ian Thomas Ash, a filmmaker from the United States, brought a small camera into a visiting room to make the documentary film "Ushiku." What are the realities inside the immigration facility as told by the detainees?

    The title of the film refers to the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center located in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture. It is one of the 17 immigration detention facilities in Japan.

    It was in the fall of 2019 that Ash, who is based in Tokyo, first visited the Ushiku immigration center. He was asked by his friends who were conducting visitation activities for detainees if he wanted to join them.

    "I was concerned about the foreigners in the detention center. When I actually visited, some of them were so weak (both physically and mentally) that I felt their lives were in danger," Ash said.

    The 45-year-old filmmaker told the Japanese people around him what he felt of the visit, but the reaction was muted. What came back were words based on misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge, such as "It's the same as prison, isn't it?" and "Everyone is a criminal anyway, right?"

    One of Ash's motivations for working on the film was that he felt that the reality of the immigration facility was not well known. In addition, facing the harsh conditions that foreigners like himself are experiencing, he said, "I was driven by a sense of mission to do something about it."

    However, there was a big barrier to the filming. Visitors are not allowed to enter the rooms where the detainees usually stay. The only place where they could have contact with the detainees was the visiting room, but the Immigration Services Agency of Japan does not allow cameras or recording devices to be brought in for "security reasons," and smartphones are also not allowed. So Ash decided to use a small camera.

    "Human rights violations were happening right in front of my eyes. As a witness, I felt I had to record it. If I didn't go inside, I wouldn't be able to get that evidence. The rules should be respected, but as a human being, I felt I shouldn't keep a lid on what was happening in front of my eyes," Ash said.

    The visiting room has a glass partition that separates the detainees from the visitors. Ash brought his camera in from the winter of 2019 and filmed the detainees over several months as they talked about the conditions within the facility and their own feelings. In his work, he released footage of nine people who eventually gave their consent (one person only provided audio). Their faces are not blurred out, and their real names are given.

    This June 2020 file photo shows the entrance of the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center, where foreigners are detained, in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture. Long-term detention has become a problem. (Mainichi/Ken Uzuka)

    "Even prisons have prison terms (length of detention), but this place doesn't have a set time for when people get out. That's the hardest part," said a middle-aged detainee with a gloomy face. His wife comes to see him every month, but the visitation time is only 30 minutes. They can't even hug because there is a partition, and the visitation time passes in a flash. The prolonged detention caused the man to become mentally unstable and he attempted suicide.

    Another man around his 30s appeared in the visiting room in a wheelchair and was silent for a while. He looked as if he was frightened of something. When Ash asked him about his situation, he confessed that previously he was about to be deported and taken to Narita Airport. The detainee said that he was held down by several officials and when he screamed out in fear, they held his mouth and nose. His face twisted many times as he spoke, as if the pain of that time had come back to haunt him. "These people (immigration officers) are too wicked," the man complained as if he were squeezing out his words.

    An elderly man testified that he was handcuffed when he was transferred from the facility to an outside medical institution. Doctors and nurses treated him roughly, "like we are garbage," he recalls. The man drew pictures of his feelings and the events that occurred in the detention center, and he showed Ash a picture of a large hole. The composition was looking up from below, and there was a beautiful blue sky over the hole. "This is my life now. I (am) inside this hole, I hope to go out," the man murmured.

    The detainees in the film are seeking protection as refugees, fearing persecution and oppression if they return to their home countries. However, in Japan, where the average rate of refugee status recognition over the past 10 years has been less than 1%, the chances of their applications being approved are slim to none. As a result, long-term detention against one's will has become common. In the midst of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, the Tokyo Olympics, which the government is working hard to host, is based on the concept of "diversity and harmony." However, what the film brings to light is the exact opposite of that side of Japan, Ash says.

    "They say 'Omotenashi, Japan is full of hospitality.' Yeah, my (expletive). Is this what you call hospitality?" one detainee said.

    According to the immigration services agency, as of the end of 2020, there were 207 detainees who had been locked up for six months or longer. Of these, 41 had been detained for at least three years (the figure is the total for all facilities).

    There is no upper limit on the length of detention, and there is also no mechanism for a third party to judge the appropriateness of detention. The United Nations Human Rights Committee and other bodies have repeatedly called on the Japanese government to correct these conditions. In recent years, there have been a number of deaths at immigration facilities that appear to have been caused by long-term detention.

    It is true that the detainees are in violation of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, but does that justify restraints that deprive them of so much freedom?

    Ash emphasized, "In the first place, they are in the process of applying for refugee status. Whether they are refugees or not has not yet been decided. The question is whether it is right to house them in this way. And even if they are not refugees, does that mean they have no human rights?"

    Ian Thomas Ash, the director of the documentary film "Ushiku," is seen in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on May 24, 2021. (Mainichi/Yukinao Kin)

    The attitude of the immigration authorities seems to be more focused on "exclusion" than "protection." Ash believes that this is also the atmosphere that Japanese society contains. Even though he has been living in Japan for almost 20 years, he still feels the occasional cold stare. He also feels uncomfortable every time someone says to him, "Your Japanese is good," or "You can use chopsticks." He even had a policeman ask him to show his passport when he was walking down the street.

    "Here (Japan) is my home. I love Japan. But sometimes I feel like people are saying, 'You're different, you're not like us.' No matter how much I feel at home, it's different," the filmmaker said.

    The problems of immigration control are also connected to society. It is because of this conviction that Ash wants to bring this film to as many people as possible. "I didn't make this film to tell people that 'Japan is such a terrible country,'" he said.

    "These things are happening, but what do you think? Are you OK with this? That's the message I hope people will take away from the film."

    "Ushiku" won the "Nippon Docs Award" in the documentary category at the 21st Nippon Connection held from June 1 to 6. Nippon Connection is one of the world's largest film festivals dedicated to Japanese films, held annually in Germany, but this year it was held online due to the coronavirus pandemic. The release date of "Ushiku" has not been decided yet. As soon as it is decided, details will be announced on the official website at: .


    Ian Thomas Ash

    Born in 1975 in New York, Ash first came to Japan in 2000 through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, which is sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and invites young people from abroad. After working as an English teacher, Ash went to graduate school in the U.K. to study filmmaking. After coming to Japan again, he began his filmmaking career on a full scale. Ash's major works include "Sending Off" (2019), which closely follows the scene of at-home nursing care, and "A2-B-C" (2013), which follows children in Fukushima after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

    (Japanese original by Yukinao Kin, Digital News Center)

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