afghanistan japan refugee
In Japan, Afghan refugees have found peace but loneliness. Photo:

Shawn Woody Motoyoshi


Insular Japan Opened Its Borders to Ukrainians. Will It Do the Same for Others?

“I don’t know what the difference is, why you have to be treated discriminately,” an Afghan refugee said of Japan’s immigration policy.
VICE World News marks the first anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, from the devastating consequences that ensued to the millions of lives that were transformed.

TOKYO, Japan – Mohammad hasn’t felt like himself since he fled to Japan in November.

Everything that used to define him as a person was left in Afghanistan, his home for 32 years. He has no friends. Dinners are eaten alone, a much quieter affair than back home in the Afghan capital of Kabul, where he’d gather around the table with his family of 12 to eat soup.

But he made these difficult sacrifices for his safety. Having worked at the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, he feared he could be targeted for his affiliation with Western powers by the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist group that took over the country in August 2021. In November, he packed his bags and fled to Tokyo with a work visa after spending several months in Pakistan to process his visa application.


Mohammad acknowledged he was lucky to be able to get away mere months after the Taliban took over Afghanistan. The only reason he was able to get the proper papers was because the nonprofit he worked for prior to his time at USAID had strong connections to Japan, he said.

But upon arrival, Mohammad has been hit by another hurdle, one far more isolating and inescapable: loneliness. 

Surrounded by bare white walls and the 50 or so books he brought from Afghanistan, he’s at peace. “But sometimes it gets so difficult, I need to move or do something to escape from that feeling of sadness,” he told VICE World News, requesting the use of a pseudonym in fear his family may be targeted by the Taliban. 

Some five million people have been displaced by the conflict since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last year. A small fraction of those refugees have ended up in Japan, a country known for its culture of solitude, strict immigration policies, and lukewarm response to global humanitarian crises. 

In 2021, the country accepted just nine Afghan citizens applying for refugee status. According to some government estimates, fewer than 4,000 Afghans now live in Japan, a country of 125 million people.

Mohammad is now one of those people. He sometimes goes to his local mosque in Tokyo to pray, but hasn’t been able to make any new friends, he said. Sure, he has his acquaintances he’s met through past work trips to Japan, but none of them hug him or even shake hands. 


“This is very different from what I’m used to, because even in the office, we’d be hugging as if we hadn’t seen each other for months,” he said of his former workplace back in Afghanistan. 

Every face at Mohammad’s new mosque is unfamiliar. The handful of Afghans he knows here are either stressed or depressed, he said, faced with the prospect of having to return to Afghanistan because the Japanese government hasn’t granted them asylum. 

“But even if they stay here, they have no assistance, or support from the government,” he said. 

Unable to find any dish that tastes quite like his mom’s cooking, he settles for Indian curries or the occasional beef bowl. He’ll never touch fish, an indispensable ingredient in Japanese cuisine, he said. 

“Nowhere in Japan do I feel at home,” he said, smiling sadly. 

Instead of being able to eat dinners his family would cook back in Afghanistan, Mohammad buys food from Japan's convenience stores. Photo: Shawn Woody Motoyoshi

Instead of being able to eat dinners his family would cook back in Afghanistan, Mohammad buys food from Japan's convenience stores. Photo: Shawn Woody Motoyoshi

Despite being the world’s third largest economy, Japan has accepted just 1,107 refugees in the past 10 years. In comparison, Germany granted 32,000 people refugee status in 2021 alone.

But since Russia invaded Ukraine in February and forced over 12 million people from their homes, Japan has uncharacteristically opened its arms to refugees.

Over 1,300 Ukrainians have entered Japan since March and were offered shelter, language courses, subsidies for housing and living expenses by the Japanese government. Japan also pledged $600 million to support Ukraine’s defense against Russia.


Though Japan hasn’t made clear why it’s suddenly expanded support for refugees in the wake of the Ukrainian war, immigration advocates urge Japan to broaden its aid and cover all asylum seekers. But they recognize their demands are futile in trying to budge Japan’s decadeslong stance on immigration. 

Reiko Ogawa, a professor of Chiba University’s graduate school of social sciences, told VICE World News that geopolitical concern and racial bias is a major factor behind the difference in the way Japan treats Ukrainian and Afghan refugees.

“The Japanese public will feel good about helping out when they see that the refugee is a blond, blue-eyed woman in the media—they can feel superior,” she told VICE World News. She said Japan should be more concerned for evacuees who fled from other countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Syria.

Teppei Kasai, a program officer for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said refugees from Myanmar, Syria, or Afghanistan are unfairly assumed to be less educated and thereby less qualified applicants for asylum. “There’s this uninformed assumption and bias that people from these three countries must somehow be less compatible with the customs and life in Japanese culture compared to people from Ukraine, because they’re from Europe,” he told VICE World News.

Sakae Saito, a volunteer at Peace Winds Japan, a nonprofit that supports refugees, said the Ukrainian war is a more global crisis than other humanitarian catastrophes in recent years. Russia and Ukraine are major commodity producers, meaning many countries—including Japan—have felt the conflict’s economic impact. “That’s why Japan is more concerned and has committed to supporting Ukraine,” he told VICE World News. 


Mohammad, who had to leave his entire family behind in Afghanistan, feels that the international community is forgetting about his country and focusing their attention on Ukrainian refugees. “I don’t know what the difference is, why you have to be treated discriminately,” he said. 

“In Ukraine, at least you have a democratic government. In Afghanistan, we have nothing,” he said. 

Mohammad often spends his time at a local park and reads, or exchanges messages with family in Afghanistan. Photo: Shawn Woody Motoyoshi

Mohammad often spends his time at a local park and reads, or exchanges messages with family in Afghanistan. Photo: Shawn Woody Motoyoshi

The low acceptance rate of asylum seekers in Japan stemmed in part from its strict definitions of a refugee.

Despite being a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, Japan only grants refugee status if applicants are individually targeted and persecuted by the government. This leaves out millions others who might be fleeing in fear of persecution for their sexual orientation, their race, or conflict between nations. During the Ukrainian war, Japan circumvented its strict definition by labeling Ukrainians as “evacuees” instead.

This interpretation hasn’t been updated because Japan—a largely homogenous society—is uninterested in opening its borders to refugees, Ayako Niijima, a manager at the nonprofit Japan Association for Refugees’ protection and assistance unit, told VICE World News.

According to a November 2019 poll conducted by the office of the Japanese cabinet, nearly 57 percent of respondents said Japan should be cautious before committing to accepting more refugees. The survey, conducted every five years, found that fear of criminals among asylum seekers was the most common reason for such caution.


This changed slightly during the war in Ukraine. After Russia launched its attack, thousands in Japan protested the conflict, in numbers not seen during the Afghanistan crisis. Polls now indicate that a majority of the public wants the government to accept more Ukrainian evacuees. 

At one point, Japan looked poised to welcome more refugees. In the 1970s, after the Vietnam War, Japan accepted about 11,000 people fleeing conflict from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. But since then, the acceptance rate for refugee applications has remained low. In the last 40 years, 87,892 have applied for asylum—only 915 have been accepted.

That didn’t prevent some from trying to reach the country anyway.

Mohammad, who’s been in Japan for nine months, hasn’t found a job since he moved. Photo: Shawn Woody Motoyoshi

Mohammad, who’s been in Japan for nine months, hasn’t found a job since he moved. Photo: Shawn Woody Motoyoshi

To enter Japan, it took Murtaza Hussein 10 years. After finding the Japan Association for Refugees to sponsor his visa, the Afghan arrived in Tokyo in November 2019 fleeing what he said was persecution for his atheism. Soon after, he applied for asylum and went through countless, hourslong interviews detailing the physical violence he faced back in Afghanistan. 

“Even though I expected it’d take a very long time, I knew I wanted to come to Japan because they aren’t as religious here,” he told VICE World News. The 26-year-old has held atheist views since he was a child, which for the Taliban is enough of a reason to execute him, he said. When he challenged his teachers at school about the Islamic faith, he’d frequently be beaten. 


“I had to hide who I was, from everyone at my school and my family,” he said. He’s been supporting himself since the age of 16, when he moved out of his family home. Living in Kabul at the time, he worked at a travel agency and learned English independently to better prepare himself for a path out of Afghanistan. He learned last December that Japan was willing to accept him, which he said was exceptionally fast. 

But once in Japan, refugees waiting for their papers still run the risk of being detained during their lengthy review process. Without official documents, asylum seekers are labeled as “illegal immigrants” and can be held at detention centers for an indefinite period. In the past, refugees have experienced poor medical treatment, ending in death in a few cases. 

Last year, the death of Wishma Sandamali, a 33-year-old Sri Lankan woman, at a detention center sparked condemnation from immigration advocates. An autopsy report revealed she likely died from organ failure and thyroid dysfunction, which her family said amounts to medical negligence. The Sandamali had originally come to Japan on a student visa in 2017 and, when that expired, applied for asylum. She was detained in 2020 when she sought police protection against an abusive partner. 

According to Japan’s Immigration Services Agency, 17 people—including Sandamali—have died in detention centers since 2007, when the agency began keeping records. 


But according to Niijima, whose association has supported refugees who experienced similar abuses in Japanese detention centers, troubles continue for asylum seekers even after they get out of these facilities. 

“There’s no support for them once they’re released—they don’t have a place to live, money to eat, and aren’t able to sustain even the most basic human necessities,” she said. 

Mohammad, who’s been in Japan for nine months, hasn’t found a job since he moved. 

At the moment, he’s able to get by on the support he’s receiving from the nonprofit that sponsored his visa to Japan. “But it’s been very difficult to find a job because I can’t speak Japanese, so I spend the whole day without doing much,” he said. 

Given his work experience with the United States, Mohammad is applying for the P-2 program, a new refugee resettlement program from the U.S. government for certain Afghan nationals. He has an older brother in Idaho whom he’s excited to see, though he can’t help but remember the responsibilities he’s left at home. 

“My mother is old now and she needs me. But I’m not there. This is the moment I need to be there,” he said. The 32-year-old said he was his mother’s favorite child and was the problem solver within the family. 

Mohammad doesn’t know when he’ll return home. After receiving news last month that his younger brother was arrested by the Taliban and nearly executed, he knows home is not safe for him. “That country is a jail,” he said. 

Murtaza, likewise, is not looking back. 

“In that country, death is normal, execution is normal,” he said. If he stayed there, he’s not sure he’d be alive, he said. 

Though still without friends or family in Japan, Murtaza said that he now at least has the freedom to dream. “I want to make a manga to tell the stories of all the people who got me here,” he said. 

But first, he said, he needs to learn how to draw.

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