Helping refugees find a home from home in Japan

Helping refugees find a home from home in Japan

Amnesty International Japan's Hiroka Shoji fights for dignity and human rights
Amnesty International Japan
Amnesty's Hiroka Shoji faces both cultural barriers and a forest of red tape when it comes to placing refugees.

Hiroka Shoji’s looks are so deceptive, you might be fooled by the diminutive 29-year-old’s demure appearance and pleasant smile. But make no mistakes -- being Amnesty International Japan’s Refugee Officer requires nerves of steel and the drive to stand up to armies of gray bureaucrats entrenched in some pretty old-fashioned attitudes to the modern world.

Since joining AIJ less than two years ago, Shoji has had her hands full following the plight of the hundreds of asylum-seekers who apply for refugee status. “One thing we are working on,” Shoji says, “is improving the system in order to raise the recognition rate that right now is extremely low, especially when compared to other countries. “

Many people come to Japan full of hope, but most of them run into an insurmountable wall. As Shoji explains, “In the last three years more than 1,000 people have applied for refugee status, but each year only 30 to 40 are recognized.”

Less than 3,000 refugees currently live in Japan. This is in stark contrast with other developed countries, big and small, which host tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people.

Most recognized refugees in Japan are Burmese. "This is both for historical reasons and because they have a rather big and well-organized support group here,” says Shoji.

Imbalanced system

This leaves precious little space for other nationalities. “For instance, none of the Kurds from Turkey have ever been recognized -- the system is very political, which shouldn’t be the case,” says Shoji.

Another problem that AIJ has been lobbying to rectify is the length of time refugees have to wait before their case is heard. Although the Ministry of Justice is trying to shorten the recognition process, most applicants end up waiting between 18 months and two years before the authorities reach a decision.

“The fact is,” Shoji adds, “half of them don’t have a valid visa but still they have to live, so they are forced to work illegally, often in low-paid dangerous jobs. The current system doesn’t allow them to make a decent living while waiting for their fate to be decided.

“Not only that, they live in constant fear of being arrested. This is another issue which we are addressing.” The AIJ believes that if the authorities don’t reach a decision after six months, the refugee seekers should be given a regular working permit.

Two suicides and at least four hunger strikes have been recently reported in immigration centers throughout Japan, where violence also breaks out from time to time.

“It is the true that the authorities usually look the other way,” Shoji concedes. “Still, these people are forced to live under a lot of stress, and of course they always run the risk of being exploited in many ways. This is why amending the law must be given top priority.”

Hiroka ShojiHaving taught Japanese in California, Shoji has been used to talking to large groups of people.

Shoji has been interested in the world outside Japan since she spent nine months in the United States between the ages of five and six. “My dad was a scholar and had a sabbatical for one year," says Shoji. "He spent that time teaching at UCLA, so we all moved to California with him.”

In the 1980s, Culver City, near her father’s university and where she went to school, had a very advanced bilingual education program because there were many immigrants. “I actually picked up Spanish before English because most of my classmates were Hispanic,” says Shoji.

That learning experience and the diverse and stimulating environment left Shoji with a great impression of other nationalities and contributed in no small part to her decision as an undergrad to major in cultural studies.

American history

Shoji went to the United States for the second time as an exchange student while she was preparing her Master's thesis. “I spent a few months in California for my research when I was 23, and also worked as an assistant Japanese teacher.

“I majored in American History, and was particularly interested in historical negative sentiments toward immigration. In my thesis I compared the movement at the start of the 20th century -– when people were more direct in blaming race –- and after 1965, when public opinion used the environment to back the general attitude against immigrants.”

Being a historical researcher, Shoji spent most of her time in the archives. “I didn’t really have a chance to meet the people who were involved at the time. So, when I thought about what I wanted to do after university, I decided I wanted to deal with current issues and have a chance to change people’s lives.” This led her to join AIJ.

Hiroka ShojiShoji hosts a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.

Apart from regular weekday office hours, Shoji often participate in meetings, events, symposiums and other activities that leave her with little precious free time. “Having to deal with these problems on a daily basis can be very taxing. In order to cool off I try to do things that have nothing to do with my profession. “

For the last three years she has been studying Nihon Buyo, or traditional Japanese dance. “It’s a very fascinating art, based on gentle, almost fragile movements. It’s also deceptively simple: According to my 80-something teacher, for example, it takes three years to properly learn how to bend your neck.”

Hiroka ShojiShoji with her dance classmates, keeping traditional arts alive.

In recent years, fewer and fewer young Japanese have showed an interest in studying or working abroad -- or so the media would like us to believe. Shoji, though, seems to have a different opinion on the subject.

“Before joining AIJ I worked at my City Hall’s International Relations Section on a program for sending students abroad, and I had a chance to meet many enthusiastic people.”

Rat race

According to Shoji, the main reason for not going abroad is economic: “If you are studying at a private university in Japan and you want to take a year off, you still have to pay half your tuition, on top of the money you are going to need to live outside Japan.”

Right now there is so much competition in the local labor market that many people think that taking themselves out of the race for one or two years is going to hurt their chances of finding a job later. “Obviously having a living and learning experience abroad is helpful on many levels, and it looks good on your resume, but oftentimes it’s not directly related to your future occupation.

“This said,” adds Shoji, “I often hear from students who want to know how they can join AIJ or work in an international organization. They are very strongly motivated and well prepared, so I’m feeling very encouraged by the current situation.”

Gianni Simone is a mail artist and freelance writer from Italy. When not editing and publishing his many 'zines, he writes on all things Japanese for "Vogue Italia."

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