After an online outcry, a Japanese manga artist has been forced to take down a rendering of a Syrian refugee girl she posted on Facebook. Based on a photo of a real girl, the cartoon came with a caption sarcastically suggesting the girl was grasping for refugee status to grab herself a cushy, luxurious existence in an affluent host nation.
This may seem like par-for-the-course anti-refugee sentiment, the kind of casual bigotry that’s been seen around the world as the refugee crisis unfolds. But in Japan, the word “refugee” has a completely different and very telling set of connotations.
It’s not easy to guess who Japan’s many refugees are, since the label has a completely different meaning to the one Western ears are used to. “Marriage-hunting refugees”, “Job-seeking refugees”, and “English refugees” – these are just a few examples of the newly coined terms which use the word “refugee” in Japanese media. There are many more, and some have even spread into the day-to-day language of the general public.
“Marriage-hunting refugees” have failed to find a marriage partner. “Job-seeking refugees” are unemployed and struggling to find work. And “English refugees” aren’t refugees from England; they’ve simply failed to acquire a command of the English language. Other derogatory coinages are constantly emerging: “licence refugees”, “life-care insurance refugees”, “housing-loan refugees”, “shopping refugees”.
Beyond a joke
These neologisms are more than just jokes. They have completely overwhelmed the meaning of the word as set by the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines refugees as people who were forced to flee from their country of origin due to risk of persecution (or violence, conflict or other types of gross human right violations).
Instead, these new terms describe people who are desperate to achieve something, but who continuously fail; those who are lost, unable to find any solutions for themselves, miserable, powerless. And they’ve sparked plenty of angry public debate.
The controversy surrounding the term “internet-café refugees” is particularly illustrative. Some years back, this new word was formed and spread within Japanese society. According to the term’s originator, internet-café refugees are people who regularly spend the night in 24-hour Internet cafés, mainly due to their inability to secure access to a fixed address.
As this coinage has gained the extensive attention in the Japanese media, the Business Association of Internet Cafés officially requested putting a stop to the use of this new term. The reason for this claim was striking: the association was concerned that this neologism would severely damage the branding and image of internet cafés and their users.
It claimed that “the term refugees has such a negative image and we don’t want our customers to be seen like that”. The response was not made to halt derogatory or discriminatory use of the word refugees, but to stop the word refugee tarnishing their image.
The inventors of these terms might have innocently coined them without any ill-intention to discriminate or insult refugees. But alarmingly, these derogatory neologisms will not only further distort the original meaning of being a refugee, but will also exacerbate the negative image towards refugees in the country.
Due to the unprecedented scale of refugee flows, particularly from Syria, many countries – including non-European states such as the US, Australia and Canada – are now making plans to take in tens or hundreds of thousands of people. While Japan, has made donations to help Syrian refugees from afar, it remains stubbornly reluctant to receive them.
Out of the 5,000 asylum applications Japan processed in 2014, only 11 people were granted refugee status, an acceptance rate of 0.2%. The Japanese government has so far rejected almost all asylum applications by Syrians, granting refugee status to only three cases out of more than 60 applications submitted in Japan.
During his visit to Japan last year, Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, criticised the country’s refugee policy as “too rigid and too restrictive”. For its part, the Japanese government insists that the current recognition rate of asylum seekers is a result of precisely applying the definition of the refugees, enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, to these asylum applicants.
I cannot help but see some connection between the fatuous public discourse on “refugees” and the state’s evasive attitude towards taking in refugees. These terms have become so ubiquitous and mundane that much of Japanese public is numbed to their negative connotations and sheer tastelessness.
There are as yet no serious civil society movements appealing to the Japanese government to reverse or loosen its closed-door refugee policy. In the meantime, the word “refugee” will remain a term of casual insult rather than a matter of humanitarian and moral imperative.