Asylum seeker ministry in Japan
Jesus told us to visit those in prison. How can we do that in Japan?
I recently received a letter from a Nigerian detainee in a detention center. It began: “Belated Happy Easter! Greetings in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.” And it concluded: “Sir, thank you for your heartfelt kindness and concerns. God bless you.”
In Matthew 25:35-36, Jesus mentions feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick, and visiting those in prison. In Isaiah 42:7, the Lord says about his servant, “You will open the eyes of the blind. You will free the captives from prison, releasing those who sit in dark dungeons” (NLT). And in Hebrews 13:3, “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies” (NLT).
These are strong words. We should be ministering to those who are in prisons and detention centers. We should be serving the Lord by ministering to those who find themselves in need of companionship and hope and, above all else, love. And minister to them in a way that they will know that their lives matter, that they are loved without condition, and that they are created in God’s image. Those who are imprisoned are so important to Jesus that he even tells us that caring for them can lead one to eternal life.
There are prison ministries throughout the world, many having their beginning in Prison Fellowship founded by Chuck Colson. This ministry aims to bring the gospel and the Lord to prisons and prisoners in countries throughout the world. However, Prison Fellowship is not ministering in Japan. At a chance meeting with Colson in McLean, Virginia, where both he and I lived, I asked him why they don’t work in Japan, and he said that Japanese prisons only allow one visit by one visitor each month. And, even if this has changed since my meeting with Colson, the conditions in Japanese prisons are severe—isolation at almost all times is central to the sentence imposed.
Refugees in detention in Japan
A number of churches in the Tokyo area have taken the initiative to bring the Lord to those who are imprisoned, not to those in jails, but to those in detention centers awaiting a decision on their request for asylum.
Almost without exception, the detainees did not anticipate their misfortune in Japan as they sought a different life. They sought relief from governments where many were killed including their family members and friends. They saw Japan as a safe country and a place where better opportunities for gainful employment existed. Little did they know that, on arrival, they would be sent immediately to a detention center where they would be imprisoned in conditions that are arguably in violation of their human rights. And they might stay there for months, if not years.
As of the end of June 2019, there were 1,253 detainees, 54% of whom had been in the centers for six months or more, and 20% for two years or more.1 In 2020, only 47, or 1.2% of applicants, were granted refugee status in Japan.2
The conditions in these centers are only slightly better than the typical Japanese prison. A number of people have died by suicide or harmed themselves. Detainees are placed in small rooms with other inmates, and they are allowed out to exercise for only short periods each day. They can have visitors for only thirty minutes at a time in rooms which have a plexiglass barrier between the detainee and the visitor. Medical help seems almost nonexistent, and they can only make phone calls out, with no one allowed to call them. There is no way in which detainees can earn money. All packages sent in are carefully screened. No photographs are allowed.
Almost without exception, detainees feel abused and forgotten. They are frustrated, bored, lonely, and often without hope. Many have no visitors and no contact with the outside world. They are not in prison, in the criminal sense, but prisoners nevertheless.
Stages for refugees in Japan
There are several stages that detainees can go through after arrival in Japan. The most fortunate ones are given Refugee Status, receive a residence card, and enjoy all rights and privileges of residents in Japan which include the right to work, health care etc.. Those who do not receive Refugee Status are sent to a detention center. No one is allowed to leave the center unless it is to return to one’s home country, to be deported, or they are granted a provisional status.
Provisional release or karihōmen (仮放免) is the main provisional status granted; while not as severe as a detention center, it is essentially as restrictive and confining. No work permits are granted and there is no health insurance. The detainees cannot own housing and are not allowed to leave the prefecture in which they live without permission. Their status must be renewed every two months, and if not renewed, they are sent back to a detention center.
Moving through the various stages is time consuming and fraught with legal pitfalls and confusing rules. Reviews and decisions are given arbitrarily without explanation and not rendered in a timely manner. Of course all of this happens in Japanese, which most of the asylum seekers don’t understand well. Most of those in detention seek asylum. Applications typically take two months to evaluate, during which deportation is illegal. There is no restriction on the number of times applications can be filed, so avoiding forced deportation can be done by submitting successive applications. This leads to some being imprisoned for many years with consequent effects on their mental and physical health.
How can we embrace the teachings of Jesus about caring for captives? Can we minister to those in detention centers? It does not require vast resources.
Here are ten suggestions:
- Get a list of detainees at a detention center through a church which is active in this ministry (e.g. Tokyo Baptist). You can then visit the center, individually or in pairs, and arrange for thirty-minute sessions with detainees on any day of the week.
- Enter into penpal relationships with detainees.
- Send weekly or biweekly shipments of newspapers, books, and Bibles, which can be shared with all at the center.
- Distribute prayer cards with verses from Scripture to detainees as points of reference, guidance, and sources of hope.
- Obtain used appliances, and things like TVs, DVD players, and rice cookers to send to people with karihōmen.
- Lobby those in positions of decision-making in Japan, to effect change in the laws and procedures relative to asylum and detention.
- Highlight incidences of abuse and maltreatment to members of the broadcast industry and newspapers, encouraging them to publish articles.
- Contact other countries’ governments and authorities to encourage them to provide asylum for detainees who give up in trying to get asylum in Japan, and who seek a new life in another, more asylum-friendly, country.
- Encourage relevant international agencies, like UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—the UN refugee agency) and international NGOs and NPOs, to influence change in Japanese laws and procedures.
- Pray for our brothers (and sisters) who are detained against their will. We can all pray for their health and well-being, for them to know God’s love, for them to know and follow Jesus, and pray for their release from detention in order to lead more purposeful faith-based lives.
We are led to believe that changes are “in the wind” in Japan in regard to all aspects of the detention of asylum seekers, and hopefully they will be—sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, following the commands of Jesus to visit those in prison will, at the very least, result in hope and love being brought to all who are detained, and joy to those who are following his words. Jesus said: “I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt. 25:36 ESV).
Please consider how you can be involved.
For further information on reaching out to asylum seekers in Japan, please contact either Tokyo Baptist (email: email@example.com, web: https://tokyobaptist.org) or the author (firstname.lastname@example.org).
1. Amnesty International Japan, https://www.amnesty.or.jp/human-rights/topic/pdf/topic_refugee_jp_graph01.pdf (accessed August 3, 2021).
2. “Japan Accepts 47 Refugees in 2020 as Applicants Fall by 60% Due to Pandemic,” Nippon.com, https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-data/h00991 (April 30, 2021).