From Kabul to Kanda
Kanda Kabul is a tiny little restaurant tucked into the basement of a squat building in the heart of Kanda, Tokyo's old business and commercial center. These days much of Kanda has been taken over by spiffy sporting goods stores and coffee shops, but the little businesses and rows of bookshops left over from an earlier time still do a brisk trade on good days.
Kanda Kabul's "lunch set-o" clientele can wash down their narenj pulao and beef curry meals with a latte from the neighboring Starbucks, though the majority of the restaurant's real clientele aren't addicted to the lattes and don't feel any sense of familiar reassurance when they pass the green mermaid logo on their way to weekly evening meetings at the little restaurant. Instead, they are worried sick and running scared—a familiar feeling for people who live in a foreign country on shaky entry permits. Threats of isolated detention cells and deportation back to a hostile homeland throw a dark shadow over everyday life.
Established just under a year ago by former Afghan asylum-seeker Mohammad Hassani and a group of committed Japanese professionals, Kanda Kabul has been quietly doing its bit to help these "alien" Afghanis build a more secure life for themselves in Japan by offering them legal aid, counseling and hot home-cooked meals.
Hassani knows the territory well. He has waited almost a decade to get his special residence status—a prerequisite to citizenship for asylum-seekers and refugees in this country. It has been a long and difficult wait. In a mixture of halting English and fluent Japanese, he says: "I have had many, many problems...not all Afghanis are terrorists and killers and I want the people of Japan to realize that."
Japan's harsh stand on refugees and immigrants—already well-catalogued internationally—came into focus once again over the Afghan refugee issue after September 11, 2001, and the US retaliatory attack on Afghanistan that led to a steady stream of Afghan asylum-seekers making their way to Japan. Reports published by international and Japanese NGOs and sporadic local news media coverage document a growing incidence of Afghans being detained, mistreated and deported by Immigration officials who refused to see them as victims of the Taliban regime or ethnic violence even after the Taliban was overthrown.
One of the most publicized of these reports was in November 2001 when the Ministry of Justice threw out nine refugee status applications filed by Afghan men who were living illegally in Tokyo, saying that there was nothing to support their claim that they were victims of the Taliban. "Immigration told us that there is no evidence to believe they [the nine men] have been tortured or their family members murdered by the Taliban," said Ohnuki Kensuke, head of the legal team representing the men.
"One of our clients tried to kill himself after an immigration official told him 'I don't believe a word you are saying.' I don't think the way immigration officials studied their application was right," Kensuke concluded. Kensuke works extensively to provide legal aid to Afghan refugees through his Tokyo-based law firm and was instrumental in getting Mohammad Hassani's special residence status. He also helped him set up Kanda Kabul, Japan's first Afghan restaurant and cultural center, along with a small group of Japanese writers and artists who believe in Hassani's cause.
In the case of the nine Afghan men, Kensuke says the immigration officials ruling was made despite the fact that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has categorically stated that an ability to provide supporting evidence (for their suffering) should not be used as a determining factor to decide on refugee status application.
The Tokyo Immigration Bureau had detained the nine men following a series of raids (or "immigration sweeps") targeting illegal immigrants from Afghanistan and other Islamic countries after September 11, 2001. Interestingly, even though Japan started accepting refugees in 1982, till date only some 265 people out of 2,179 applicants have been recognized as refugees. All refugee status applications are studied first by immigration officials (at the points of entry to the country) and final approval, that is permission to live permanently in Japan, must be given by the Justice Ministry—through court hearings.
In 2002, of 353 asylum-seekers who applied to Japan, 26 were recognized as refugees and 67 were granted special permission for residence. According to an Amnesty International report for the year, the refugee recognition process was arbitrary; rejections were not fully explained and, significantly, the rejections did not take into account risks faced by the deported asylum-seekers. The report also detailed the denial of medical care in the detention centers where many of the asylum-seekers were detained for long periods. Kensuke adds that all the detainees were suffering from Acute Traumatic Stress Disorder during their prolonged stay in detention centers while their applications were being considered.
It helps to remember that in Japan, a "fear" of foreigners has little to do with an atmosphere of heightened global terrorism. Rather it has to do with "a culture of fear", according to Arudo Debito (formerly American-born David Christopher Aldwinckle) a naturalized Japanese citizen and social activist, quoted in a report on discrimination against foreigners published by the Pacific Asia Resource Center (PARC), a Tokyo-based NGO. Arudo speaks from bitter experience. Though a naturalized Japanese citizen, in 1999 and 2000 he was prohibited from entering a Japanese bathhouse (onsen) in the small town of Otaru in Sapporo District located in the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido, on grounds of race. The onsen proprietors were worried that allowing a foreigner to use the facility would anger other clients.
In 2002 Arudo sued the local authorities for failing to take effective measures against racial discrimination within its jurisdiction. The case received wide public and media attention and was instrumental in mobilizing local public opinion against racial discrimination.
Discriminatory signs prohibiting foreigners from using their facilities are regularly posted outside bars, clubs and onsens in smaller Japanese towns and cities. In Osaka, Japan's second largest city, signs warning people against pickpockets, add for good measure that most thieves and pickpockets are "black people." The numbers tell an absurdly different story: In 2003, foreigners accounted for just 2.3% of all crimes in Japan. And only a minuscule number of the nation's less than 2 percent of the foreign population are black.
Not that anyone is looking at those numbers. More than 44% of Japanese polled in an April 2004 government survey said Japan lacks a culture conducive to coexisting with foreigners. A 2003 government poll showed only fifty-four percent of respondents thought foreign residents even deserve the same human rights as Japanese. That is twelve percent less than when the question was asked in 1997.
There is the now infamous Immigration Bureau website [in Japanese] that has a section inviting the public to inform on "illegal" residents through email. The site offers informants preset reasons for reporting on someone such as "neighborhood disturbance," "repugnance/anxiety," and so on. Criticism from activist groups and international organizations including Amnesty Japan forced the Immigration Bureau to drop the offensive section after a couple of months.
It is against this xenophobic backdrop that lawyers like Kensuke and NGOs like United for Multicultural Japan work to give people like Hassani a chance to create a stable, safer life for themselves and their families. Arguably, their toughest job is to explain why people like Hassani and their families need to flee Afghanistan in the first place.
Mohammad Hassani was once an attache at the Afghan Embassy in Tokyo, but that was before the Taliban seized power in Kabul in 1996. At the time, Hassani, a member of the ethnic Hazara minority that are traditionally Shiite Muslims, quit his government job to protest the Taliban's brutal policies against Afghan minorities. Looking back at those horror-filled days, Hassani recounts: "The Taliban targeted ethnic minorities, women and homosexuals. They wanted all of us to follow Pashtun customs. All women were forced to stay at home; homosexuals were killed cruelly—flattened to death by stonewalls and tanks. We Shiites lived with the Taliban slogan 'Only the Pashtuns are the real Afghani people.'"
In 1998, almost 6,000 Hazara people were massacred in what amounted to genocide. By 2001, another 1,000 Hazara people from the Bamiyan region were killed. Fleeing for their survival, the Hazara people went to Pakistan and Iran; some went to Western countries including Australia, Germany and more recently Sweden; and a smaller number came to Japan where they filed applications for refugee status. Most of the Afghanis in Tokyo and Osaka belong to the Hazara minority.
The US war of retaliation against Afghanistan in 2001 followed close on the footsteps of more than two decades of civil war, infighting and drought that has left Afghanistan broken and ravaged. Hassani and his wife Roya have family back in Kabul. After the Taliban were removed from power nothing really changed for the people of Kabul, insists Hassani. "After the new government took over nothing is different for the people of Afghanistan. There used to be a Taliban before the American attack insisting on beards and long veils. Now there is another kind of Taliban," says Hassani who visited Kabul this January. His brother works in the Agriculture Ministry in Kabul and has not been paid for six months, he adds.
His extended family lives in unimaginable poverty in Kabul and Hassani knows that despite all the hardship and humiliation, there is a better brighter life for him and Roya and their children in Tokyo.
The United Nations estimates that between the year 2000 and March 2001 alone, there were some 600,000 Afghanis who were either external or internal refugees that had lost their livelihood due to civil war. With Pakistan and Iran closing their borders to refugees, developed countries offer the only hope to these desperate, battered people.
What they get instead most often on arrival at Tokyo's Narita Airport (and other ports of entry to the country) is a stint at the Landing Prevention Facility (LPF), a detention center funded by the immigration authorities but operated by private security companies. An unknown number of asylum-seekers are held for indefinite periods of time there. In December 2000, Japan's Minister of Justice allowed Amnesty International unprecedented access to the LPF.
A conclusive Amnesty report, after studying conditions at the LPFs, noted that detainees were held in windowless cells, sometimes for weeks without exercise, and denied all access to legal advice and medical treatment. Private security officers in charge of these facilities are known to have beaten some of the detained foreign nationals. Detained foreign nationals have also been forced to pay for their "room and board." Immigration officials conducting interviews with the detainees have not provided adequate translation facilities and some detainees have been forced to sign forms that they are unable to read.
Talking about conditions at LPFs, activists with the Japan Civil Liberties Union (JCLU) also point out that detention orders, for asylum-seekers and refugees held at Narita Airport and other points of entry to the country, are issued by a chief investigating officer of the Immigration Bureau thus excluding the intervention of courts in the process. Additionally, due to the principle of "self-funded exit" a deportee may be detained for a long period of time, until he or she is able to afford travel expenses. There are many cases where deportees have been confined for over six months and some have been held for over two years.
While Amnesty subsequently urged the Japanese government to uphold international standards in the treatment of foreign nationals subjected to this arbitrary fast-track detention-deportation procedure, little has changed at the LPFs or for that matter at the detention center in Tokyo, the East Japan Immigration Center detention facility in Ibaraki Prefecture (northeast of Tokyo), or in detention centers in Osaka and other regions across Japan.
On the bright side, activism in the area of refugee rights has been steadily increasing within Japan. Law firms like Ohnuki Kensuke's Satsuki Law Office have been actively involved with helping asylum-seekers and refugees get legal aid and counseling in their own language. Hassani works alongside Kensuke as an interpreter, and the attorney is a frequent speaker at the weekly sessions held at Kanda Kabul to help Afghan refugees and illegal immigrants get a legal foothold into the country. NGOs like PARC, United for Multicultural Japan and Arudo Debito's group in Otaru and organizations like Amnesty and JCLU are working to help refugees, asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants in Japan through advocacy. But a lot more has to be done, far more loudly and effectively before refugee rights, racial discrimination and a humane immigration policy become a part of the dialogue in this country.