Japan's immigration control
Gulag for gaijin
Jan 18th 2012, 12:29 by K.N.C. | TOKYO
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”. It must be considered as unverified, despite The Economist’s attempts to check relevant facts with the Japanese and Canadian governments. As a result, we cannot endorse its accuracy. We present edited excerpts, below, because they are deeply troubling if true.
On my way home to Tokyo after a three-day trip to Seoul, I was planning to spend Christmas with my partner, our two dogs, and her Japanese family. I had flight and hotel reservations for ski trips to Hokkaido and Tohoku, and I was planning—with the help of regional government tourism agencies—to do feature stories to promote foreign tourism to Japan.
While taking my fingerprints, an immigration officer saw my name on a computer watch list. Without even looking through my passport, where he might find proper stamps for my travels, he marked a paper and gave it to another immigration officer. ”Come with me,” he said, and I did.
He led me to an open room. Tired after three hours’ sleep overnight in Seoul, I nodded off. Officers woke me up and insisted we do an “interview” in a private room, “for your privacy.” Sensing something amiss, I asked for a witness and a translator, to make sure they couldn’t confuse me with legal jargon in Japanese. An employee of Asiana Airlines came to witness the “interview.”
The immigration officers provided a translator—hired by immigration. She turned out to be the interpreter from hell. ”Hi, what’s your name?” I asked, introducing myself to her. “I don’t have to tell you anything,” she snapped at me. She was backed up by four uniformed immigration officials.
Q: “What are the names of the hotels where you stayed in April in the disaster zone? What are the names of people you met in Fukushima?”
A: “Well, I stayed at many places, I met hundreds of people.”
Q: “What are their names?”
A: “Well, there are so many.”
Q: “You are refusing to answer the question! You must say exactly, in detail.”
(Before I could answer, next question.)
Q: “What were you doing in May 2010? Who did you meet then?”
A: “That was a long time ago. Let me think for a moment.”
The interpreter butted in: “See, you are refusing to answer. You are lying.”
The “interpreter”, biased toward her colleagues in the immigration department, intentionally mistranslated my answers, and repeatedly accused me of making unclear statements. I understood enough of their conversation in Japanese to realise she totally got my story wrong.
Without hesitation, he wrote on a document: “No proof. Entry denied.”
“But I do have proof,” I said.
But he refused to acknowledge it. “You must sign here. You cannot refuse.”
For about four hours, I sat in limbo, unable to properly communicate with the outside world. Starving and tired, I couldn’t think clearly. Various people in various uniforms aggressively shoved various documents in my face for me to sign. I simply said “wait” to everything and zoned out into a world of denial that this nightmare wasn’t happening.
At about 4 pm, the security guards came to take me away. Two haggard old men probably in their 60s or 70s, were like dogs barking at my heels. They were constantly shaking me down for money. They demanded 28,000 yen as a “service fee” for taking me to buy rice balls and cold noodles at the convenience store.
What is going on here, I wondered. I started to get worried when they took me deep into a cold tunnel below the airport. Away from [ordinary travellers in the airport], they got more aggressive with demands of now 30,000 yen for a “hotel” fee. I was feeling threatened. (I would later find Amnesty International accounts of rogue guards working for the airlines beating up airline customers in the tunnel until they paid up.)
Well, at least I’m going to a hotel, I thought. I’ll make some phone calls there, go online, and get higher-ranking officials to help me out of this big misunderstanding.
* * *
The “hotel” was in fact a jail. A prison, a detention facility, a dungeon. ”The police just told me I could make a call from here,” I said in Japanese. A guard told me flat out in Japanese: “You have no rights here.”
A sign, in English, Japanese, and other languages, lists phone numbers for United Nations organisations dedicated to helping victims of state brutality.
“It says right here that I can call these numbers.”
“No you can’t.”
They led me into a locked off area with at least two sleeping cells. The room was cold, with no windows. Lying under thin blankets, using my parka (down jacket) as a pillow, I stared at the ceiling and walls.
Later that night, I was ordered into the common room. A man, probably in his 50s, was waiting to see me. His tie said “immigration.” He was warm and compassionate. He tried his best in English and Japanese to explain what was happening. He said, to my surprise, that the other officers were “idiots”. He said they had no business putting foreigners—tourists or expats—in jail like this. “It is a shame for Japan,” he said. “Embarrassing.”
After talking to me, he went out for a few minutes and came back to give me more documents to sign. One was titled “Waiving the Right to Appeal”, meaning, “We are kicking you out of the country.” The other was an “appeal form”. It said I had three days to appeal to “the Minister of Justice.” This at least gave me hope that someone would recognise their mistake, and let me go home
After he left, the guards granted me a privilege—the right to take a shower. My show of respect, and polite language toward them, was reciprocated. They let me make a phone call. They gave me a form to fill out—this is Japan, after all—listing the nationality, name, phone number and relation of that person.
I tried to milk it. While pretending to check my phone messages (technically not a phone call), I sent messages on Facebook. I wrote short, and sent quickly, in case they caught me: (In jail now … Narita … No rights … Innocent … Help me.)
I went back to my cell dejected. I lay under blankets in my winter clothes, tormented. I chased away dark thoughts—suicide, protest, escape—from my mind. I cried for myself, and for the tortured souls of the previous tenants.
* * *
I was so exhausted from the ordeal that I did fall asleep, shortly after they turned off the lights at 11pm. When I woke up at 10 am on Saturday morning, December 24, my cell was unlocked. [From] the jail’s common room, I was allowed to call my partner. “Don’t worry,” I said, “They’re going to let me go home soon. It’s all been a big mistake.”
The guards now let me make a second call, to my embassy representative. Though helpful and genuinely concerned, she said, “only Japan has authority. There’s nothing we can do.” She said my worried family and friends, who saw my messages on Facebook, had been calling her to offer assistance. She also had faxed a list of lawyers and legal assistance agencies in Japan to the immigration officers.
It was a smart move, because it showed them that powerful people in Canada—the department of foreign affairs, the Canadian embassy, media people—were indeed watching what they were doing with me, a human, with a name, family and supportive friends. It was a way to humanise me. [But] the papers were useless. How could I contact a legal website, if I wasn’t allowed internet? How could I call a lawyer, if I wasn’t allowed phone calls?
There was another call for me. This time from someone at Asiana Airlines. ”How are you doing this morning?” she asked, cheerfully. She said they had been calling my partner at home, asking her to pay 170,000 yen for my one-way ticket to Canada. I wasn’t pleased to hear that. “I’m not going home to Canada,” I scolded her. “My home is in Tokyo. I live here, in Japan.”
“This is a good offer, you should take it,” the airline employee insisted. “If you don’t, the price will go up. The normal price is 400,000 yen. If you wait, you will pay 400,000 yen.”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “I paid 25,000 yen for a round trip ticket to Seoul on your airline. And now you want me to pay 170,000 yen, or 400,000 yen? That’s $5,000, for a one-way ticket. That’s more than five times the normal rate, because I’m in jail.” The airline employee hung up.
I was worried. “This is a scam,” I thought. The airline guards are shaking us down for money, and now the airline is price gouging me, and even harassing my partner to pay.
But I was cheered about an hour later, when the guards told me, “Pack up your bags. Don’t leave anything behind.” It was good news. They were going to let me out of here. My appeal worked, I thought. They’re going to release me and let me go home.
A Special Inquiry Officer sat me down in his office, across from the Special Examination Room where everything had gone wrong a day earlier. He showed me a document from the Ministry of Justice. It was an “Exclusion Order”, with my name on it, next to the details of a flight leaving for Canada.
I was crestfallen. “No, that’s not right,” I said, confused.
“There is a plane leaving for Canada at 7pm. You must take that plane.”
“But I live in Tokyo. I have a life here.”
“If you do not take that plane, you could end up in jail for months, years. And you’ll never be allowed back into Japan.”
Next, the airline employees came around to hit me up for money. They now wanted 200,000 yen for a one-way ticket on Air Canada. I told them it was a rip-off. I knew that a round trip ticket at HIS travel agency in Tokyo was 50,000 yen plus tax. “OK. 170,000 yen, plus 30,000 for the hotel fee and the security guards,” they said. “This is outrageous,” I said.
I grabbed my phone from them, since they still had my passport and bags. I called a friend. “Quick, call the police. Tell them I’m in the immigration office, Narita terminal one.” The immigration officers derided me. “Police do not have jurisdiction to come in here,” they laughed. “Narita is a special legal area.”
* * *
The airline employee and the [private security guards] were alone with me in a room. ”You must hurry up and buy this ticket,” the Asiana employee said. “Can you pay 150,000 yen?” He went out to negotiate with another airline. When he came back, he said, “The best I can do is 130,000 yen, plus 30,000 yen for the [guards].”
“No,” I said. “This is wrong. This is a scam. You are just trying to profit off someone in a weak position, a victim of human rights abuses.”
Again, he went out, and came back with a new offer. ”I have asked for special prices. I can do it for 100,000 yen. Anything lower is absolutely impossible. I’m really trying to help you. Please get on this flight.”
It was already after 5 o’clock. People were checking in for the 7 pm flight. I was really sweating now.
This time, he came back with a young, stocky guy. He was wearing a blue uniform. “Do you see this gun?” he said in Japanese, turning around to show me a weapon in its holster. “I have the legal authority to use this if you refuse to get on that flight. Now are you going to buy that ticket?”
I was angry now. They are forcing me at gunpoint to buy an overpriced ticket.
The [guards] ushered me out of the room and through the airport. They still had my bag, my passport, my wallet, credit cards, everything. I had no choice. They whisked me through the airport like a criminal. I didn’t have to line-up for x-ray machines or immigration. [They] pushed me through VIP lines, ahead of pilots and flight attendants.
As we walked to the departure gate, they continued to badger me for money. I told them flat out, “This is wrong. Have some pride. I am a working man just like you.”
The older guys backed off. They sensed I wasn’t going to give in to their pressure. But a hideous older bulldog of a woman was much more relentless. Even the Asiana officers were taken aback by her uncultured onslaught. She raised the demand in increments—30,000 yen, 35,000 yen, 38,900 yen—the tactic of a third world market haggler, trying to pressure you to buy before the price goes higher.
Still holding my passport, she dogged me all the way to the gate. “I’m going to fly with him all the way to Canada,” she said to another [guard], in Japanese so that I could hear it.
At the departure gate, I sat down amongst ordinary people happy to be going home for Christmas or on a ski holiday to Canada. I made several last phone calls to loved ones in Japan. My partner cried so heavily, she made me cry. I told her to hug our dogs for me. At that point, I realised I might never see our 15-year-old dog ever again.
My heart burst open like a seawall against a tsunami. Flowing with tears, I ran to the bathroom—to hell with asking the guards. I returned to my seat near the gate. I didn’t even look at anyone. I just covered my face in my hands and cried.
Finally, the [female guard] gave up. The two male [guards] escorted me onto the plane, and finally gave me back my passport.
As the Pacific coastline came into view, I gazed perhaps one last time at the street lights and dark rice fields below. It was a feeling I had never considered before: what it would be like to leave Japan, and not return.
I could only notice that the vast majority of space below was filled with a deep and utter darkness. Somewhere out there, in the gulag of detention centres dotting the land like black holes in the heart of Japan, were the cries of innocent people who would not be heard."