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Japan’s immigration control – Gulag for gaijin

AN EXTRAORDINARY story is making the rounds among the hacks and other expats in Japan. A Canadian freelance journalist who has lived in Japan for years fell into the ugly whirlpool of Japan’s immigration-and-detention system. For years human-rights monitors have cited Japan’s responsible agencies for awful abuses; in their reports the system looks like something dark, chaotic and utterly incongruous with the country’s image of friendly lawfulness.

Still the case of Christopher Johnson beggars belief. Returning to Tokyo after a short trip on December 23rd he was ushered into an examination room, where his nightmare began. Over the next 24 hours he was imprisoned and harassed. Most of his requests to call a lawyer, the embassy or friends were denied, he says.

Officials falsified statements that he gave them and then insisted that he sign the erroneous testimony, he says. Guards tried to extort money from him and at one point even threatened to shoot him, he says—unless he purchased a wildly expensive ticket for his own deportation, including an overt kick-back for his tormentors. Once he was separated from his belongings, money was stolen from his wallet and other items removed from his baggage (as he has reported to the Tokyo police).

The problems to do with Japan’s immigration bureau have been known for years. Detainees regularly protest the poor conditions. They have staged hunger strikes and a few have committed suicide. A Ghanaian who overstayed his visa died in the custody of guards during a rough deportation in 2010. (In that case, the prosecutor has delayed deciding whether to press charges against the guards or to drop the case. A spokesperson refuses even to discuss the matter with media outlets that are not part of the prosecutor’s own “press club”.)

Mr Johnson’s ordeal closely matches the abuses exposed in a 22-page report by Amnesty International in 2002, “Welcome to Japan?”, suggesting that even the known problems have not been fixed. One reason why the practices may be tolerated is that the Japanese government apparently outsources its airport-detention operations to a private security firm.

It is a mystery to Mr Johnson why he was called aside for examination, but he suspects it is because of his critical coverage of Japan. (Mr Johnson’s visa status is unclear: in an interview, he said his lawyer advised him not to discuss it.)

Reached by The Economist, Japan’s immigration bureau said it cannot discuss individual cases, but that its detentions and deportations follow the law, records of hearings are archived and the cost of deportation is determined by the airline. The justice ministry declined to discuss the matter and referred all questions to the immigration bureau. Canada’s department of foreign affairs confirmed to The Economist that a citizen was detained and that it provided “consular assistance” and “liaised with local authorities”.

Mr Johnson’s own rambling account of his saga appeared on his blog, “Globalite Magazine”.

You can find the whole story in The Economist Benyan blog.

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