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What’s behind Japan's offer to take in Ukrainian refugees

Of all the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture, the concept of avoiding loss of face is most difficult to fully grasp

What’s behind Japan's offer to take in Ukrainian refugees

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attends the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue online meeting with other heads of state from his office in Tokyo on March 3. (Photo: Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office/AFP)

Published: March 04, 2022 10:18 AM GMT

Updated: April 01, 2022 09:28 AM GMT

If the invasion of Ukraine by Russia came as startling news for most people, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s announcement that his country is ready to take in Ukrainian refugees was no less shocking.

After years of Japan steadfastly warding off asylum seekers from all corners of the world, we now learn that all it needed was an armed conflict — and a realistic nuclear threat — to convince Japan to finally open its doors to refugees.  

When Kono Taro, the megalomaniac former foreign minister in the Shinzo Abe cabinet who refers to himself in his Twitter profile as the "Covid czar," tweeted the news, it was shared by many of his followers.

The reason was simple — everyone knows it is the right thing to do. But observers of Japanese politics over the years cannot but see the hypocrisy of it all.

Politicians can count on the short memory of the general public to turn what is evidently a cheap tactic for self-aggrandizing political exposure into a Good Samaritan deed.

In fact, only those who forgot, or never knew, that Japan denies asylum visas to 99.6 percent of its applicants may infer that Japan’s move is truly inspired by the generosity and heartfelt concern for the sufferings of people in Eastern Europe.

The reluctance of Japanese to express disagreement with their boss, even when they indeed diverge with them, is one such example

“To demonstrate solidarity with the Ukrainian people, we will proceed to accept those who are seeking refuge in a third country,” Kishida said.

So let’s get a little historical perspective. In 2019, over 10,000 people applied for refugee status in Japan. However, only 44 were accepted. The year before, it was 42 out of about the same number of applicants.

Not only that. The Japanese application process when compared with international standards appears very foggy to say the least. It’s not clear at all how and what is being evaluated during the decision-making procedure for accepting refugees. Trying to detect any criteria of fairness or objectivity is a lost cause.

But now, Japan, in an astonishing about-face, is even boasting about the acceptance of these refugees.

Did the Rising Sun’s political class truly feel the horror of the situation or is it the popular nature of this war — the first to really go viral on social media — that is finally getting them to rise above their prejudices to save face with the world?

In Japanese, they say "mentsu wo tamotsu" (avoiding loss of face for oneself or one’s organization), which is often the motivation behind many decisions here that Westerners often find hard to comprehend.

The reluctance of Japanese to express disagreement with their boss, even when they indeed diverge with them, is one such example.

As the Russian tanks slowly moved into Ukraine, Japan stood watching how the other countries would react. The global consensus was for sanctions, therefore Japan followed.

Thousands of people across the archipelago hit the streets in support of Ukrainians only after word of similar protests all over the world spread on social media.

But did the Japanese take to the streets when Shinzo Abe was indirectly financing an elementary school of his wife’s friend with millions of dollars, or when the Olympic Harumi land was undersold at citizens' cost, or when the huge Covid relief money fraud came out?

Did they feel any compassion towards their fellow Okinawans or the activists who have been opposing the relocation of the American Futenma Marine base to the Henoko Bay coastal area which has a massive environmental impact?

It must be said that modern Japanese have always sought the approval of Westerners and have always tried to avoid their criticism by anticipating it in their internal debate

Japanese are strong with the weak and weak with the strong. They don’t seem to care about the state of health of their own regions if that means running the risks of being exposed as "politicized." But they are not ashamed to show solidarity with a country most of them would find it hard to point to on a map.

It must be said that modern Japanese have always sought the approval of Westerners and have always tried to avoid their criticism by anticipating it in their internal debate.

This is because deep down they have always considered Westerners to be superior, ever since the Portuguese arrived 500 years ago on the coast of the archipelago in Tanegashima with rifles in their arms and not the simple wooden spears still in use in the country.

In China, the most viral meme may be Uncle Tom spilling oil over the Ukrainian fire, exacerbating the conflict (and certainly the US is not acting as a peacemaker), but in Japan the audacious public workers are doing their best to illuminate their landmark buildings at night with yellow and blue colors.

The Kishida cabinet’s latest decision is only superficially a message of solidarity with the underdog. What it really represents is a warning to everyone hoping for solutions to any of the major internal scandals. For them to be solved, they would first need to become worthy of global attention and then gather unidirectional, unanimous international support.

Only then will the sycophants in power "courageously" take a stance and automatically follow the latest prevailing trend.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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