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The violent truth about immigration detention centers in Japan: Part 1 of 2

TOKYO -- "Let's bring him down. Subdue him, subdue him." Six uniformed immigration officers wearing gloves pinned down a Japanese Brazilian man who had been placed in a detention center, and twisted the man's arms as he yelled, "It hurts! It hurts!" The officers responded shouting, "What do you mean it hurts?" and "Shut up, you're being loud." Their voices carried throughout the facility.

    A group of immigration officers pin Andre Kussunoki down on the floor, with one man putting weight on Kussunoki's head at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Oct. 9, 2018. (Photo grab from video provided by Andre Kussunoki's legal team)

    This scene is from a video submitted to the Tokyo District Court as evidence in a damages suit brought by the Japanese Brazilian man against the Japanese government seeking compensation for injuries he suffered at the hands of staff at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau in Tokyo's Minato Ward when he was detained there.

    There have been a series of cases being tried in the courts over claims that acts of violence have been committed against foreign nationals in immigration detention centers. What is happening at Japan's immigration facilities? This is part one of a two-part series.

    According to sources including the bill of complaint filed by the Japanese Brazilian man, 35-year-old Andre Kussunoki, who was detained at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau, on Oct. 5, 2018, Kussunoki was informed by an immigration officer that he would be transported to the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center in the Ibaraki Prefecture city of Ushiku. Kussunoki told the officer that he did not want to be taken to the detention center in Ushiku, since his friends would not be able to come visit him there, and also because that year, there had been a suicide at the center. He asked why he was being transferred there, but all he was told was that the matter was finalized and the immigration officers refused to engage in a discussion with him about it.

    In August 2019, Kussunoki filed a lawsuit seeking 5 million yen (approx. $43,000) from the Japanese government for the injuries he incurred four days later, on the day of his transfer to the detention center in Ushiku, when he was pinned to the floor by multiple immigration officers and his arms were twisted. The trial is still ongoing at the Tokyo District Court.

    Andre Kussunoki stands in front of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Feb. 4, 2022, where he was pinned to the floor in October 2018. (Mainichi/Asako Kamihigashi)

    In the trial, the Japanese government has argued that because Kussunoki "refused transport and detention, and obstructed immigration control officers' execution of duties, the actions taken were to prevent an incident in which both Kussunoki and the staff could both be hurt, and was a legitimate course of action on the part of immigration control officers."

    Video that immigration authorities captured of the incident was submitted by the government to the court in response to the plaintiff's demands. The Ministry of Justice stipulates that when immigration authorities conduct restraint that entails coercive power, footage must be recorded so that it can be verified later. The Mainichi Shimbun got a hold of the footage through Kussunoki's legal team, and this is the first time the footage is being shown to the public by a news organization.

    The "subduing" of Kussunoki occurred on the morning of Oct. 9, 2018, four days after he was told that he would be transferred. The video shows multiple male immigration officers entering Kussunoki's living space, and dragging him out of the bathroom, where he barricaded himself with small tables. He is brought down to the floor on his stomach and "subdued," after which he is handcuffed.

    "It hurts, it's going to break," Kussunoki yells, his face contorted in pain. But the officers respond coldly and at times angrily, saying, "It's not broken," and "Stop moving around!" With his body still facing down, five officers carry Kussunoki to another room where he is processed for transfer. Throughout this time, Kussunoki shouts multiple times, "My arm hurts," "It hurts." Officers roar back at him, "This is happening because you refused to follow orders," and "I'm telling you to shut up!"

    Immigration control officers "subdue" Brazilian national Andre Kussunoki at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Oct. 9, 2018. (Photo grab from video provided by Andre Kussunoki's legal team)

    Once they arrive at the room where Kussunoki is to be processed, he is once again placed face-down on a blue mat, multiple men on top of him to prevent him from moving. An officer says, "You'll be going to the immigration center in Ibaraki," to which Kussunoki says, "Why? Why am I going there?" and "Someone died by suicide there." Staff do not respond. At one point, a large male officer puts both his hands and his weight on Kussunoki's head. Kussunoki yells, "Ahhhh," his face twisted in pain. This lasts over 10 minutes.

    Kussunoki, who is currently on provisional release, meaning he is temporarily released from detention, told the Mainichi Shimbun that he lost the strength to resist due to the treatment he received, and subsequently washed his hands and face, which had blood on it, and was put on a bus heading to Ushiku. He said that on the way there, he cried the whole time out of pain and humiliation.

    On Oct. 10, the day after Kussunoki was transferred to the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center, he was seen by a doctor at the health clinic there, where he was diagnosed as having a partial left rotator cuff tear. There was pain left in his head from having had so much weight placed on it, which required that he take painkillers for several days. The doctor at the clinic told him that he required long-term rehabilitation or surgery for his shoulders. Kussunoki still has shoulder pain, and has trouble raising his arms.

    Immigration control officers restrain and carry Andre Kussunoki for transport to another immigration detention center at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Oct. 9, 2018. (Photo grab from video provided by Andre Kussunoki's legal team)

    Looking back, Kussunoki said, "I didn't intend on resisting. All I wanted was to have a calm dialogue. I wanted a clear explanation on why I was being transferred. I wanted to know the truth about the person who died by suicide at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center, and I was scared to be going to a place like that. But the immigration officers took me by force, without a conversation. I thought they were going to kill me."

    Since 2007, 17 foreign nationals have died at immigration detention centers in Japan. Ten have been due to illness, five have been due to suicide, and the causes of two are unknown. In April 2018, an Indian man killed himself at the detention center in Ushiku.

    What Kussunoki felt anxious about was this last suicide. He had heard from other detainees that a detainee who had been at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center for a long time had attempted suicide. Kussunoki's friends and supporters are in Tokyo. If he were to be transferred to a faraway and inconvenient place -- like Ushiku -- it would make it harder for them to come visit him. It was painful for him to think about a lonely life in a detention center that he didn't know how long would last.

    Kussunoki was raised in Sao Paulo. His father is Brazilian, and his mother is Japanese. In 2005, after Kussunoki graduated from high school, he decided he wanted to go overseas and came to Japan, where he had relatives.

    Immigration control officers restrain and carry Andre Kussunoki for transport to another immigration detention center at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Oct. 9, 2018. Kussunoki coughs and says, "I can't breathe." (Photo grab from video provided by Andre Kussunoki's legal team)

    He had a "long-term resident" visa, which was a visa status established in 1989 for second-generation and third-generation Japanese Brazilians, Japanese Peruvians and others. It was introduced against a backdrop in which the Japanese economy was continuing to grow, but the problem of not having enough domestic laborers was becoming increasingly serious. At the time, the Japanese government said that foreigners engaging in menial labor were not eligible for the visa, but gave foreign nationals with Japanese ancestry preferential treatment and gave them visas without restricting what jobs they could have. From 1990 onward, when the system went into force, many Japanese Brazilians and Japanese Peruvians came to Japan, and worked at auto factories and electronics parts factories. At its peak in the 2000s, the number of Brazilians and Peruvians with "long-term resident" visas was between 150,000 to less than 180,000, comprising nearly 10% of all foreign residents in Japan.

    Kussunoki was one of them. After his arrival in Japan, he stayed at a relative's home, and worked for about three years at an auto factory in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. He subsequently married a Japanese woman and obtained a Japanese spouse visa. He moved to Tokyo, where his wife lived, and worked at a restaurant. The couple had a child, but ended up divorcing for various reasons. Having lost his visa, Kussunoki was detained by the Tokyo Regional Immigration Services Bureau in January 2018. He said that life in a detention center offered "no freedom." Not wanting to inconvenience his friends, he told them they didn't have to come visit him after he was transferred to the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center.

    There are many long-term detainees who are suffering from poor mental health. At the Higashi-Nihon center, Kussunoki saw a man who had been detained for at least three years cut his neck with a pair of scissors, and be transported to a hospital with blood all over himself. Kussunoki staged a hunger strike in protest, and was released on temporary leave twice, but was detained again two to three weeks later. He has also been placed in a "protective room," a solitary room where detainees are left in effectively as punishment, for about a month.

    The entrance to the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center, where Andre Kussunoki was transferred in October 2018, is shown in this file photo from June 2020. Long-term detentions are a problem at the facility, located in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Mainichi/Ken Uzuka)

    Starting in the beginning of 2020, coronavirus infections began to spread in Japan, and the chief of the Immigration Services Agency of Japan instructed that April to curb the number of detainees at its detention centers. As others who had been in the detention center with him were released, Kussunoki wondered why he wasn't, and developed depression; once he even tried to overdose on sleeping pills that had been prescribed to him. His last temporary release was in December 2020, about three years from when he was first detained. He now lives with a different Japanese woman in Tokyo, but his anxiety over when he might be detained next never leaves him.

    While he was detained at the Higashi-Nihon Immigration Center, Kussunoki asked an immigration officer why the Indian man had taken his own life. "Because he was weak," was the response he got. But, Kussunoki said, "Was he really weak? You can't see your family or your friends, and you don't know when you'll be able to get out. When you're locked up in a place with no freedom, I would think that anybody would have their heart broken.

    "But I'm half Japanese. My wife is Japanese. So I don't want to badmouth Japan," he said. There had been some nice immigration officers, too. One apparently had opened up to him and said, "I didn't know that we did this kind of thing at our job. But this is a civil service job, so I can't quit."

    From 1990 onward, many Japanese Brazilians came to Japan and worked at auto and electronics parts factories. Here, then Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are seen visiting a Sanyo Electric Co. factory in the Gunma Prefecture town of Oizumi on April 7, 2008. (Pool photo)

    In the rules on how foreign nationals detained at immigration facilities must be treated, established by the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, Article 1 stipulates that the human rights of the detainee must be respected, and the purpose of detention is appropriate treatment. What is being pursued in the ongoing lawsuit is not just a matter of compensation, but whether human rights are being upheld.

    (Japanese original by Asako Kamihigashi, Digital News Center)

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