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Summary

Japan has not accepted many refugees in the past.  It began accepting refugees in 1978 in order to grant resident status to refugees from Indochina.  Japan acceded to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees on October 3, 1981, and to the 1967 UN Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees on January 1, 1982.  In 2010, Japan began accepting refugees for resettlement in Japan in accordance with the UN Convention and Protocol.

When an alien applies for refugee status, he/she is permitted to stay in Japan during the period when his/her application is being examined, if requisite conditions are met.  Once an applicant’s refugee status is recognized, he/she may obtain special resident status. 

Refugees can receive Japanese language classes, social adaptation training, and employment assistance.

I.  General Background

The number of refugees who have been admitted to Japan is much smaller than the number admitted to European countries (see Part IV, below).  The reasons may be that

  • Japan does not have strong ties with the countries where refugees are from;
  • Japan’s language barriers and cultural differences do not attract refugees;
  • Japan is located far from the areas where refugees are from;
  • Japan’s record on refugee acceptance does not attract refugees; and
  • the standards employed by Japan’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in recognizing refugees are very strict.[1]

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II.  Three Types of Refugee Acceptance

Japan began accepting refugees and granting them resident status in 1978 after refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia began arriving on Japanese coasts.  Japan accepted 11,319 Indochinese refugees as residents from 1978 to 2005.[2]

The mass outflow of Indochinese refugees prompted Japan to join the international system on refugees.  Japan acceded to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Convention) on October 3, 1981, and to the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (Protocol) on January 1, 1982.[3]  After acceding to these treaties, Japan amended its Immigration Control Order, Cabinet Order No. 319 of October 4, 1951, to establish a system for recognizing refugee status, and renamed the Immigration Control Order as the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act.[4]  Under the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, the definition of “refugee” is the same as the definition in the Convention and Protocol.  Japan recognized 633 refugees (the total number of applications was 22,559) from 1982 to 2014 under the Convention and Protocol.[5]  

The Japanese government decided to start a resettlement program in 2008 and, from 2010 to 2014, accepted eighty-six refugees for resettlement in Japan.[6]

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III.  Recognition of Refugee Status

A.  Refugee Application on Entry

When an alien arrives at a port in Japan and claims to be a refugee, he/she must fill out a form for temporary permission to land.[7]  An immigration inspector reviews the form and may grant temporary permission to land if the inspector deems that

  • the alien has escaped from a territory where his/her life, body, or physical freedom was imperiled for the reasons specified in the Refugee Convention or other similar reasons; and
  • it is reasonable to allow the alien to disembark temporarily.[8]

The temporary permission is granted for a period of up to six months.  The examiner designates a facility where the alien stays during this period.  The alien must stay within the boundary of the municipal government jurisdiction where the facility is located.  The alien cannot work during this period.[9]

When an alien applies for refugee recognition, he/she must appear in person with an application form and other necessary documents, including materials that prove refugee status.[10]  The Minister of Justice makes inquiries of the National Public Safety Commission as to whether the applicant has committed a serious nonpolitical crime outside Japan (citing article 1, item F-(b) of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees).[11]

When the Minister of Justice recognizes a refugee applicant as a refugee, the Minister issues a certificate of refugee status.  If the Minister denies refugee status, he/she sends the decision and reasons in writing to the applicant.[12]   

B.  Status of a Refugee Applicant Who Is an Undocumented Resident

In addition to applying for refugee status upon landing at a port in Japan, an alien can apply for refugee status after he/she has entered the country.[13]  It is possible that the situation that creates the need for an alien to apply for refugee status arises after the alien entered Japan.[1]4  There is no provision that restricts refugee status applications from aliens whose refugee status applications were denied in the past. 

When an alien without legal resident status, such as an undocumented resident, applies for refugee recognition, he/she is permitted to temporarily stay in Japan, and deportation procedures are suspended if he/she meets certain requirements, such as not having a criminal record and not being a flight risk.  Among other requirements, an alien without legal resident status can apply for refugee status recognition if

  • the alien submits an application within six months after disembarking in Japan, or six months from the day the alien became aware of the circumstances that would cause him/her to become a refugee while he/she is in Japan; or
  • the alien directly enters Japan from a territory where he/she may suffer the types of persecution stipulated in the Refugee Convention.[15]

C.  Objection to Refugee Status Denial

When the Minister of Justice denies an applicant’s request for refugee status, the applicant can file an objection with the Minister within seven days from the date that he/she has received the notice of denial.[16]  The Minister must then consult with refugee examination counselors whom the Minister has appointed as experts able to make fair judgments.[17]  When the applicant requests an oral presentation or a refugee examination counselor deems it necessary, the refugee examination counselor is given an opportunity to examine the applicant.  When the Minister renders a decision, a summary of the refugee counselor’s opinion must be presented to the applicant.[18] 

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IV.  Recent Issues

As the following table illustrates, the number of refugees afforded recognition of refugee status under the Convention and Protocol has not increased in recent years:

 

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

Recognition of refugee status

34

41

57

30

39

21

18

6

11

Resettled refugees

0

0

0

0

27

18

0

18

23

Special stay

53

88

360

501

363

248

112

151

110

Source: MOJ, 我が国における難民庇護の状況等 [Status of Refugee Protection in Japan], sched. 3, http://www.moj.go.jp/content/001138217.pdf (last visited Jan. 27, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/ XRZ2-UEM6.

In contrast, applications for refugee status under the Convention and the Protocol and objections to the denial of refugee status applications have rapidly increased in recent years: 

 

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

Refugee application

954

816

1,549

1,388

1,202

1,867

2,545

3,250

5,000

Objections

340

362

429

1,156

859

1,719

1,738

2,408

2,533

Source: MOJ, 難民認定申請数の推移[Trends in Asylum Numbers] app. 1, tbl. 1, http://www.moj.go. jp/content/001138214.pdf (last visited Jan. 27, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/CTA3-XS7X.

Until 2005, the number of applications was even smaller.  Before 1996, the number of applications was less than one hundred.[19]

Such a rapid increase in the number of applications and objections has caused delays in processing them.  A conference convened by the MOJ examined the situation and identified three types of problematic cases:

  • Aliens claiming refugee status on the basis of situations that are not listed in the Refugee Convention
  • Aliens repeatedly applying for refugee status on the basis of situations for which their application was previously denied
  • Aliens repeatedly applying for refugee status without a proper basis merely to postpone deportation[20]

The conference suggested that the government change the refugee recognition system, which enables and attracts aliens and enables them to keep applying for refugee status or request reexamination without justification.[21] 

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V.  Resident Status in Japan

An alien who is recognized as a refugee and has not yet acquired legal resident status is given special resident status for up to five years if, among other requirements, the alien

  • submits an application for refugee recognition within six months after disembarking in Japan, or six months from the day he/she became aware of the circumstances that would cause him/her to become a refugee while in Japan; or
  • directly entered Japan from a territory where he/she may suffer the types of persecution stipulated in the Refugee Convention.[22]

Even if those requirements are not met, an alien may be exceptionally permitted to live in Japan when the Minister of Justice recognizes a special reason.[23]

There is no particular restriction on special residents’ activities.[24]  There is no system for monitoring refugees, although refugees, like all residents, are required to report changes in their registered address.[25]

One of the conditions for a refugee to obtain permanent resident status has been relaxed, compared with other aliens: the Minister of Justice has the discretion to grant permanent residence status to refugees who do not have sufficient income, assets, or the ability to support themselves,[26] which is usually required for aliens to obtain permanent residence.[27]

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VI.  Assistance to Refugees in Japan

The Japanese government provides the following programs to refugees at the International Refugee Assistance Headquarters’ Support Center within the Foundation for the Welfare and Education of the Asian People:

  • 572 hours of Japanese-language education
  • Social adaptation training
  • Employment counseling and placement

While refugees are enrolled in the programs, free accommodation is provided for up to 180 days.[28] 

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VII.  Resettlement in Japan

On December 16, 2008, the Cabinet approved a pilot resettlement project.  Three days later, the Inter-ministerial Coordination Council agreed on trial admission arrangements and specific plans for providing support for the local integration of refugees admitted into Japan for resettlement.  The government decided to admit approximately thirty refugees (consisting of families) once a year for three consecutive years beginning in fiscal year 2010.  Burmese refugees in the Mae La Camp in Thailand were chosen for the plan.  In fiscal year 2010, five families consisting of twenty-seven refugees arrived in Japan and went through the 180-day integration program.[29]

These refugees do not have to apply for refugee status.  They are accepted as special residents and therefore can apply for special resident status.[30]

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VIII.  Naturalization

Requirements for naturalization are the same for refugees as for other aliens.  When an alien staying in Japan wants to become naturalized, he/she must

  • have lived in Japan for more than five consecutive years;
  • be of good conduct;
  • be at least twenty years of age and legally capable;
  • have sufficient income, assets, or the ability to support him/herself;
  • have no nationality or give up his/her current nationality by obtaining Japanese nationality; and
  • have never been a member of an organization that aims to destroy the Japanese government by violent measures.[31]

Some requirements are exempted, depending on the alien’s situation, such as if the alien is married to a Japanese national or is the child of a Japanese national.[32]  

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Prepared by Sayuri Umeda
Foreign Law Specialist
March 2016


[1] 第6次出入国管理政策懇談会 [Sixth Immigration Policy Conference], 報告書「今後の出入国管理行政の在り方」 [Report: Future Policy on Immigration] 28 (Dec. 2014), available at http://www.moj.go.jp/ content/001130126.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/D7CF-EZKB.

[2] Refugees, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/refugee/japan.html (last visited Jan. 27, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/XHC3-G2ZN

[3] Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, July 28, 1951, 19 U.S.T. 6259, 189 U.N.T.S. 137 (Convention) & Jan. 31, 1967, 19 U.S.T. 6223, 606 U.N.T.S. 267 (Protocol), http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10. html, archived at http://perma.cc/V86S-GU6S.

[4] Cabinet Order No. 319 of October 4, 1951, Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, amended by Act No. 79 of 2009, translation available on the Japanese Law Translation website, at http://www.japaneselaw translation.go.jp/law/detail/?printID=&id=1934&re=&vm=02, archived at https://perma.cc/ MV5R-MSJP

[5] MOFA, supra note 2; 難民問題と日本 III [Refugee Problems and Japan III], MOFA, http://www.mofa.go.jp/ mofaj/gaiko/nanmin/main3.html (last visited Jan. 27, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/LH7N-DJS5

[6] 我が国における難民庇護の状況等 [Status of Refugee Protection in Japan], MOJ, http://www.moj.go.jp/ content/001138217.pdf (last visited Jan. 27, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/XRZ2-UEM6.

[7] Enforcement Ordinance of Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act (Enforcement Ordinance), MOJ Ordinance No. 54 of 1981, amended by MOJ Ordinance No. 36 of 2015, art. 18, para. 1, translation available at http://www.japaneselawtranslation.go.jp/law/detail/?printID=&ft=2&re=02&dn=1&yo=refugee&ia=03&x=26&y=12&ky=&page=2
&vm=02
, archived at https://perma.cc/H6TL-F8UM.

[8] Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act art. 18-2.

[9] Enforcement Ordinance art. 18, para. 5.

[10] Id. art. 55, para. 1.

[11] Id. art. 55, para. 4.

[12] Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act art. 61-2.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. art. 61-2-2, para. 1.

[15] Id. art. 61-2-4, para. 1, item 6 (quoting art. 61-2-2, para. 1, items 1 & 2).

[16] Id. art. 61-2-9, paras. 1 & 2.

[17] Id. art. 61-2-10, para. 2.

[18] Id. art. 61-2-9, paras. 4 & 5.

[19] 難民認定申請及び処理数の推移 [Trends in Numbers of Refugee Recognition Applications and Numbers of Cases Processed], MOJ, http://www.moj.go.jp/nyuukokukanri/kouhou/press_060224-1_060224-1-4.html (last visited Jan. 27, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/C9MW-V5XV.

[20] 第6次出入国管理政策懇談会・難民認定制度に関する専門部会 [6th Immigration Policy Conference, Sub-conference by Experts on Refugee Recognition System], 難民認定制度の見直しの方向性に関する検討結果(報告) [Results of Discussion of Refugee Recognition System Review Policy (Report)] 11 (Dec. 2014), http://www.moj.go.jp/content/001130133.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/S5PS-RDNZ.

[21] Sixth Immigration Policy Conference, supra note 1, at 31.

[22] Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act art. 61-2-2, para. 1, items 1 & 2.

[23] Id. art. 62-2-2, para. 2.

[24] Article 19 of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act set limitations on the activities of aliens who have a certain resident status.  There is no such limitation on permanent residents and special residents, however.

[25] Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act art. 19-9.

[26] Id.art. 61-2-11.

[27] Id. art. 22.

[28] 平成18年度からの国際救援センターの後継難民定住支援施設及び同施設において実施する難民定住支援プログラムの概要, 難民対策連絡調整会議幹事会第5回会合資料[Overview of Successor Facilities for Refugee Resettlement Support to Be Implemented from 2006 and Refugee Resettlement Support Programs at the Facilities, 5th Refugee Measures Coordination Executive Secretaries Meeting Material], Cabinet Secretariat (Mar. 3, 2006), http://www.cas.go.jp/jp/seisaku/nanmin/060303program.html, archived at https://perma.cc/6KSC-W464.

[29] MOFA, supra note 2.

[30] 出入国管理及び難民認定法第7条第1項第2号の規定に基づき同法別表第2の定住者の項の下欄に掲げる地位を定める件 [Defining the Status of Long-Term Residents as Listed in the Lower Column of Appendix Chart No. 2 of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act in Accordance with Article 7, Paragraph 1, Item 2 of the Same Act), MOJ Notification No. 132 of 1990, amended by MOJ Notification No. 37 of 2010.

[31] Nationality Act, Act No. 147 of 1950, amended by Act No. 70 of 2014, art. 5.

[32] Id. arts. 5–8.